Various Artists: Preachin’ the Blues: The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell

Various Artists
Preachin' the Blues: the Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell

“I don’t play no rock ‘n’ roll”
— Mississippi Fred McDowell

It was Son House who recorded the scandalous “Preachin’ Blues” in the ’40s and again in 1965 for Alan Lomax. It was an anthem that demolished the last, frayed ties with ragtime and set Delta blues on its own dirty, low-down course. “I want to be a Baptist preacher,” howled House, “so I don’t have to work no more.” A jab at hypocrisy in the pulpit, perhaps, but more likely an earnest longing for a livelihood that required less physical strain than the oppressive levee camps. Son House epitomized the great curiosity of American roots artists — he was both deeply pious in his inner man and demonstratively profane in his outer conduct.

The same thing was true of House’s traveling and arguing buddy, the great Charley Patton who, in addition to being the “Father of the Delta Blues”, was virtually the grandpappy of rock ‘n’ roll. Historians have mused that Patton was a pure showman, that the religious sides he cut under the pseudonym “Elder J.J. Hadley” were satirical. Have you ever listened to “Prayer of Death”? If that’s a satire, Patton failed to pull the punch-line. The truth is that Patton, too, lived on the edge and worried about his soul. The same was true of Skip James, the brooding, D-minor poet of Bentonia, who wrote the devastating “Hardtime Killing Floor” and promised God from his deathbed that if healed he’d sing spirituals and never touch the blues again. And lest one thinks this is strictly a Mississippian phenomenon, look further: up in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, Roscoe Holcomb sang the Old Baptist songs in one breath and mused about moonshining in the next. The scripture says, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways,” but we the audience have an insatiable desire to stroll vicariously in these wayward paths.

Fred McDowell was a greater enigma. He at once claimed ignorance about his influences, then set about deliberately to convey the contradictions of country blues. With nostalgia he recalled learning the play slide the way his uncle had shown him — with a hollowed out steer bone (question: does a bone from a castrated bovine make a better slide than one from a fully-endowed bull?). He wore clothes that didn’t match. He swore up and down that he didn’t play “no rock ‘n’ roll”, but happily embraced the electric guitar to the chagrin of country blues purists. His mixture of secular and religious tunes seemed calculated. By contrast, whenever House or James broke into spiritual song, it always felt like a spontaneous outpouring of deep repentance and regret. Mississippi Fred was, well, preachy. When he sang his gospel blues one couldn’t help but feel a bit brow-beaten.

Preachin’ the Blues: The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell is a rare tribute album where professional musicians actually succeed in interpreting the works of an untrained folk artist. Since the contributors to this collection come from varied backgrounds and experiences, they bring to McDowell’s repertory an unfettered freshness. The listener can marvel at each tune on its own merits without worrying about McDowell’s motivation. The musicians on this album are slick, to be sure, but they all give each piece reverence and unsullied fire.

The record opens with Paul Geremia’s slashing 12-string rendition of “Get Right Church”. Geremia is considered one of the premier slide artists and his performance here is almost too good to be true. It becomes evident at the end, when his bass strings rumble like the aftermath of a B-52 strike, that Geremia “cheated” by using some studio effects. However, these don’t diminish the raging urgency of his playing or the unresolved tension in his voice. The subject matter is noteworthy, too. Unlike a lot of gospel blues which focus on individual redemption, this is a rare call to communal holiness vis-a-vis the imminent rapture theology of the Scofield Bible that had worked its way into African-American churches by the mid-20th century. The timing of McDowell’s original composition (the ’60s) is ironic, too, because it suggests the giving up of social gospel hopes for equality and justice. Instead of societal upheaval, deliverance would come through a cataclysmic escahtological event — the removal of the righteous from the earth altogether. “Get Right Church” is an appeal to the faith community to forsake its conflict with earthly adversaries and purify itself in view of the coming translation. Don’t be surprised if this tune ends up on the soundtrack to next Left Behind movie.

Charlie Musselwhite is a familiar name to blues enthusiasts and is the one contributor originally from the Delta area. He transforms “Highway 61” into an engaging talking blues, his punchy guitar work carrying the load. By contrast, Anders Osborne’s “Kokomo Blues” attacks the music from a different angle — inflected vocals served by largely rhythmic guitar lines. Similarly, Sue Foley’s spirited take on “Frisco Line” will encourage strumming players with its muscularity, though her Stevie Nicks-style vibrato may annoy some. Surprisingly, Tab Benoit’s version of “Train I Ride” is the least memorable track on this collection. He resorts to an electric guitar played straight through an amp. And while “playing it straight” was clearly Benoit’s intent, that doesn’t quite work with McDowell’s nervous, quirky music. The talented and respected Benoit comes across as rather bored with his piece.

Thankfully only two of the album’s 12 tracks involve a band — an absolute apostasy from country blues with its focus on the lone and lonesome individual. But “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” (another apocalyptic piece) works quite well with Collen Sexton’s soulful voice, Greg Hoover’s nasty electric slide, and a throbbing bass/drum back-up that makes one wish Led Zeppelin had never evolved beyond Led Zeppelin II.

There are two tracks on Preachin’ the Blues that are worth the price of the entire album. The first of these is a surprisingly naturalistic cover of “You Gotta Move” by Brian Stoltz. His creaky acoustic and smokehouse voice sound as if they were taken from a Lomax field recording. Stoltz’s guitar work here is definitive — I urge anyone interested in playing Delta slide to pay close attention to this effort. You can hear the ghostly “wwweeeeshhh” of the unfretted strings as the slide moves up the neck. His vibrato is brown and greasy; his bass notes are smacked and choked. He makes all the right dissonant connections — in short, one of the most chilling covers of a raw Delta style I’ve ever heard. As I’ve said in other reviews, it’s not all about musicianship, and while Stoltz may not be the most technically-gifted performer on this collection, he excels his peers in getting the right feeling into his performance. I believe Charley Patton would be very proud of Stoltz.

The other masterpiece comes quite expectedly. Jazz pianist David Maxwell performs “I Heard Somebody Call”, and this will literally move some listeners to tears. The piece opens quietly and mournfully, like a requiem. There’s a sense of desolation here, like all the sorrow America has ever faced — from the Civil War and the Great Depression to September 11 — rolled into one. Maxwell patiently builds into a jazzy blues groove, lifting the tempo with brief flourishes of barrelhouse and ragtime. The tune closes like the finale of many a gospel song, the bass line exhorting the upper keys to wail and worship, before succumbing to a final and seemlingly tragic conclusion. And yet, throughout the piece there is a certain spirit of defiance that characterizes the resilience of Americans, whether collective or individual. Maxwell takes a McDowell song and gives it far more universality than its original.

The album closes with Scott Holt’s grungey but savory cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” — a version which flies in the face of McDowell’s “no rock ‘n’ roll” credo.

A brief essay accompanies Preachin’ the Blues, written by Steve James, who also contributed his own convincing version of “I Rolled and I Tumbled” to the track list. This collection is recommended because, far from helping the listener understand Mississippi Fred McDowell, it defies him, ascending his eccentricities and breathing new life into his work.