Documentary prompts CPM screening and Q&A


“Mississippi” Fred McDowell Copyrighted photograph from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

A screening of  Shake ‘Em On Down: The Blues According To Fred McDowell was sponsored by the Center for Popular Music on Nov. 13. The film’s co-producer, Scott Barretta, headed a question and answer session after the showing, while local blues musician Bill Steber played music inspired by the documentary.

The event highlighted a type of blues that began in North Mississippi and was canonized by a musician named “Mississippi” Fred McDowell. The hour-long film tells the story of McDowell who was first recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959. McDowell then traveled to Europe with the Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s, mentored Bonnie Raitt and served as the cornerstone of the unique and enduring North Mississippi-style of blues music.

Barretta, an Oxford, Mississippi-based blues scholar and radio host, describes McDowell as a big part of the 1960s folk revival but rare among the famous blues men of the day. That’s because he’d been a sharecropper and a local community musician until his 50s, when he made his first recordings.

Scott Barretta

Scott Barretta

“A lot of the scholars we interviewed for the film said if he had recorded back in the ’20s and ’30s he’d have been talked about alongside Charley Patton and Son House and Bukka White,” Barretta said. “Yeah, Fred was one of the greatest artists. There wasn’t really any doubt in their minds about it.”

McDowell cast a long shadow after his death in 1972. Besides Bonnie Raitt, key figures like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough built on McDowell’s droning pulse and his song repertoire. It was woven into the centuries-old African American fife and drum music popularized by Othar Turner. And the scene exploded into the roots mainstream with the music of the North Mississippi Allstars.

Barretta’s film, which was directed and edited by his University of Mississippi colleague and collaborator Joe York, was featured on the public TV series Reel South, and the duo is exploring distribution opportunities.

The Center for Popular Music holds more than 1 million items related to American vernacular music traditions, encompassing the full range of styles in popular music, folk and traditional music, sacred music,and community band music. The archive resides in the Bragg Media and Entertainment Building under the auspices of the College of Media and Entertainment.

Mcdowell and musician

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