This article, by Rebecca Lauck Cleary, originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the Southern Register.
Fred McDowell Subject of Latest SouthDocs Film
The life of Mississippi hill country bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904–72) is the subject of a documentary film being made by Scott Barretta and Joe York. The idea for the film came about when the two discovered that the University of Mississippi owned a short film about McDowell called Bluesmaker, which was made in his longtime home of Como by Christian Garrison, who was a resident filmmaker for the university.
Barretta and York were interested in the Como community, and in particular, Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, where McDowell was a member. “McDowell made recordings with other members, including his wife,” says Barretta, UM sociology and anthropology instructor. “Otha Turner, the patriarch of the fife-and-drum tradition in the hill country, was also a member, and the current preacher, Reverend John Wilkins, is a gospel bluesman whose father was the blues recording pioneerRobert Wilkins. Joe and I explored these topics in a Highway 61 Radio show a couple years ago, and Joe filmed Wilkins and some other local artists at a North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic.”
McDowell’s story is a fascinating one. He was a laborer who played local house parties, and for most of his life he was relatively unknown. In 1959 Alan Lomax and his assistant Shirley Collins made his first recordings, and shortly after the recordings were released, McDowell went out on the festival and coffeehouse circuit. Later he traveled several times to Europe, and he was a major inspiration to younger artists, including Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, who covered his song “You Gotta Move.” He has also been a major influence on guitarists who play in the bottleneck slide style.
“That’s the general arc of our story—from obscurity to international influence, and we’re trying to capture as many parts of it as possible,” Barretta says. “Earlier this year we traveled to England, where our interviewees included Shirley Collins, now 79, who had wonderful recollections of McDowell’s ‘discovery.’”
Other interviewees so far include Dick Waterman, who managed McDowell, and Wolf Stephenson, who booked McDowell at “tea dances” on the UM campus when Stephenson was the social chairman of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. He later recorded McDowell’s classic I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll album at the Malaco studios in Jackson.
York, senior producer at the Southern Documentary Project (SouthDocs), has served as the producer of Highway 61 Radio, Barretta’s radio show, for almost a decade, and they worked together on another film some years ago, Smoke and Ears, about the Big Apple Inn on Jackson’s Farish Street.
“We’ve both always been drawn to Fred’s music and his remarkable story, from his chance encounter with Alan Lomax that launched his recording career, through his influence on the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few, and his lasting impact on the culture and music of Mississippi,” York says. “We’ve traveled as far as San Francisco and London and parts in between recording interviews for the film, and we couldn’t be happier with how well it’s coming along.”
Given the SouthDocs commitment to tell stories about the region through food, literature, and, in this case, music, it was finally the right time to make the film, York says. The biggest obstacle now is raising money to pay for the film clips and sound recordings of McDowell. “We’ve discovered some film clips that are not even known to blues aficionados and they don’t come cheap,” Barretta says. “I expect that we’ll be finished with the interview process by the end of this year, so hopefully the film can come out sometime next year.”
Barretta recently received a fellowship award from the Gerald E. and Corrine L. Parsons Fund for Ethnography at the Library of Congress to conduct research there on McDowell.