J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Reel South: Shake Em On Down

Stuckey’s didn’t just bring the world pecan rolls. They helped facilitate the Blues Revival. One of their roadside service stations regularly took messages and received mail (including royalty checks and plane tickets) for their occasional employee, “Mississippi” Fred McDowell. His story might follow a somewhat familiar trajectory, but McDowell’s rise from utter obscurity to an international concert and recording star is still remarkable. His life and career are chronicled in Joe York’s Shake Em On Down (trailer here), which airs as part of the current season of Reel South on PBS’s World Channel (hosted by Darius Rucker).

McDowell (those who knew him put the stress on the “Mac”) never recorded during the vintage blues boom of the 1930s. Although popular at local jukes and dances, he went completely undocumented until Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins recorded him in 1959. However, the Lomax seal of approval would become the gold standard for blues revivalists in the 1960s. It turned out McDowell was ridiculously easy to find (thanks again to Stuckey’s) and a tailor-made performer for the folk and blues festival circuit.

You could almost say McDowell was a precursor to punk. He could get a huge sound out of an unamplified guitar, often working just one chord, or even a single note. McDowell had lived a hard life, but he was still happy to mentor a young kid who idolized him, named Bonnie Raitt.

We hear a good deal of McDowell’s music, including the title tune, which hipper viewers should already know the Rolling Stones covered (but did not write themselves). Of course, nearly all of McDowell’s contemporaries are now jamming in the sky, but York incorporates some archival reminiscences from his great friend and rival R.L. Burnside. He also scores interviews with Raitt, Burnside’s grandson Cedric, Charlie Musselwhite, Taj Mahal, Dom Flemons, R.L. Boyce, Barbara Dane, and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars.

Clearly, York and his expert commentators have a good sense of the music and history tied up in the North Mississippi blues scene. It is tightly constructed, briskly paced survey of one of the most influential blues artists. If it does not convince you McDowell was the man, then you weren’t paying attention. Highly recommended, Shake Em On Down premieres this Sunday (3/5) on Reel South.

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