Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell
Rory Block has been one of the finest revivalists of traditional, acoustic-based blues for decades now – both on stage and in a now-formidable body of recorded work. Whether in interpreting the songs and stylings of earlier generations of blues masters, or in adding to the tradition with her well-crafted original material, almost everything she’s done over the years (save perhaps a brief foray into pop music in the mid-‘70s) has been first-rate.
I had the pleasure of producing her first Montreal concerts at the Golem in the 1980s and visiting with her on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show when she returned to the city to perform at the jazz festival in 2000.
In recent years, Rory has been turning her attention to a series of compelling tribute albums honouring some of the earlier blues masters whose music and/or personalities have inspired her.
The first in the series, The Lady and Mr. Johnson, released in 2006, cemented her reputation as perhaps the foremost contemporary interpreter of the songs of Robert Johnson, the most influential of the Delta blues masters of the 1930s.
The second, Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House, released in 2008, paid tribute to Son House, a Delta blues artist who had influenced Johnson and who, unlike Johnson, survived into old age, allowing for his rediscovery in the 1960s folk and blues revival, and allowing for young aficionados like Rory to meet and learn directly from him
She’s now released the third in the series, Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell, which also pays tribute to a blues elder that she had the opportunity to meet and learn directly from in the 1960s.
Mississippi Fred McDowell was an interesting blues elder in the 1960s in that he never recorded in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s like so many of his contemporaries. Despite decades of music making in Tennessee and Mississippi, he was first discovered and recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. Those 1959 tracks are available as The First Recordings on Rounder as part of its Alan Lomax Collection.
But, as an active recording and performing artist throughout the 1960s (he died in 1971), McDowell was an important and influential presence in the folk and blues scene.
To my mind, Shake ‘Em On Down is the most personal of Rory’s tribute albums to date in that she includes four of her own songs alongside eight written by, or from the repertoire of, Mississippi Fred McDowell.
She opens the album with two of her original pieces. She wrote and sings the first, “Steady Freddy,” in McDowell’s style and from his (imagined) perspective recounting essential details from the history of his life in music leading up to his discovery by Lomax and his first forays into touring beyond his home region. Rory uses her poetic-blues license to take McDowell’s famous statement, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll,” and turn it into long-standing advice from his mother who tells him, “Don’t ‘cha play no rock ‘n’ roll.”
In the second song, “Mississippi Man,” Rory recounts her own first encounter, at age 15, with McDowell.
The other two original pieces, later on the CD, include “Ancestral Home,” which combines musical influences from McDowell’s guitar playing and African music, to imagine McDowell singing about his ancestors stolen from Africa by slave traders, and “The Breadline,” a song based on McDowell guitar riffs and lyrically inspired by both the Great Depression that McDowell lived through and the contemporary hard times of the past several years.
Among the highlights of Rory’s interpretations of McDowell’s material are great versions of the infectious “Kokomo Blues,” the title track, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” a role-reversal version of “The Girl That I’m Lovin’” that she sings as “The Man That I’m Lovin’” and an inspired take on the gospel song, “Woke Up This Morning.”
The only thing that I would question is the inclusion of “Good Morning Little School Girl,” which she sings as “school boy.” I’ve got a lot of versions of the song in my library – by such blues elders as McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, and by other revivalists including Taj Mahal, Jim Kweskin and Johnny Winter – and as much as I respect all of those artists, and many others who have done versions over the years, the song has creeped me out for decades. Essentially, it is a pedophile’s come-on to an innocent kid.
To be fair, Rory addresses the issue in her liner notes saying “the song is a prime example of a message we would object to in today’s world due to heightened sensitivity regarding child predation.” She goes on to make the point that we shouldn’t apply today’s standards to people who lived in earlier times under different standards of morality.
I agree with Rory when it comes to appreciating artists and their recordings from earlier eras. But, I’d just as soon wish that my own contemporaries – like Rory – and younger artists not revive such songs. About 60 years ago, Louis Jordan, one of my favourite artists of that period, recorded a song called “Gal, You Need a Whippin’,” and while the contemporary morality of 1949 or ’50 may have allowed him to express such sentiments – tongue-in-cheek or not – then, I don’t want to hear anyone sing that song today. I would say the same about “Good Morning Little School Girl.”
That quibble aside, Shake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell, is a great album.