Following the extraordinary backstage jam (also available here in the Concert Vault) that was piped live over the PA system prior to the July 27, 1968 evening performers, Newport Festival director George Wein, announced another unscheduled surprise to begin that evening's program. On hand and eager to play a few numbers was one of the most important rural blues guitarists to come out of the 1960s blues revival, Mississippi Fred McDowell.
At age 55, McDowell had been discovered in 1959, when he was first recorded by music historian, Alan Lomax. Those recordings, which would see release spread out over multiple compilations, Deep South-Sacred and Sinful and Yazoo Delta-Blues and Spirituals on the Prestige label; and Sounds of the South and Roots of the Blues issued by Atlantic Records, announced McDowell to a new legion of fans. These recordings would launch McDowell's career as a professional musician. Two subsequent 1964 solo albums, released on Arhoolie and Testemant, would cement his reputation, leading to international touring the following year, where he encountered enthusiastic response everywhere he went. In America, McDowell became a frequent performer on the club and festival circuit.
Although considered one of the great Mississippi Delta blues men, McDowell was originally from Tennessee, having relocated to Como, Mississippi, in the early 1940s, where he found steady work farming, while performing at local picnics and dances. McDowell would be among the first (if not the first) of the northern Mississippi blues musicians to achieve wide recognition for his music.
Although one of his most ubiquitous quotes was the declaration, "I do not play rock 'n' roll," he was not averse to playing an electric guitar. McDowell also took a personal interest in sharing his technique with younger rock and blues musicians. His influence can clearly be heard in subsequent blues recordings by younger Mississippi blues men like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and he personally coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique. McDowell also had a strong influence on many of the leading rock musicians, including the Rolling Stones ("You Gotta Move" on Sticky Fingers was a McDowell cover), original Little Feat frontman, Lowell George, Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and founder of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman, to name but a few. Often based around a single chord vamp, which created a hypnotic droning effect, McDowell's bottleneck slide technique would have a profound and lasting effect.
Following Wein's introduction and some tuning up, McDowell begins his set with a bleak and powerful variation on "Fred's Worried Life Blues," which he recorded on his 1964 LP for Arhoolie, Mississippi Delta Blues. Here he introduces it as "Cornfield Blues," likely due to the lyric variations he was performing at the time. In fact, all three of the numbers performed in this set can be found on that highly regarded album. Following this opening number, McDowell segues directly into "Shake 'em on Down" one of his highest energy numbers. With limited stage time, he concludes his set with a quick romp through the ominous sounding "Write Me a Few Lines," which is followed by Ralph Rinzler taking the stage with a few words of gratitude for McDowell's unscheduled appearance.
Written by Alan Bershaw