1. Win a Broadcaster or one of 3 Teles! The annual Supporting Member Giveaway is on. To enter Click Here. To see all the prizes and full details Click Here. To view the thread about the giveaway Click Here.

Guitar research tangent: Mississippi Fred McDowell's guitars

Discussion in 'Bad Dog Cafe' started by LGOberean, Apr 13, 2021.

  1. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

    Age:
    67
    Posts:
    12,620
    Joined:
    May 31, 2008
    Location:
    Corpus Christi, Texas
    Yesterday my wife tasked me with some editing responsibilities for her business (some correspondence and a policy document), and I managed to get those “Honey-do” chores done. But every now and again I’d go off on a tangent; I’d take a break and indulge my guitar research. That tangent has become today’s thread.

    Research subject: Mississippi Fred McDowell and his guitars. My interest in McDowell is hardly new, but nailing down exactly what guitar models—or even brands—he had, and just when he had them, is no simple task.

    What started all this was playing some blues on my 1953 Harmony Broadway archtop. For reference and/or photographic evidence establishing the veracity of my claim (“pics or it didn’t happen”), this guitar…

    07-23-2020 - Beth, Bella, my 1953 Harmony Broadway H-954 at Mission Tejas SP - 2.jpg

    When I play blues, I gravitate towards this guitar. I know a lot of folks favor small-bodied flattops for this purpose, and I have one of those (my Gretsch Jim Dandy, which I will also use for blues). But to my ear, old style acoustic blues just sounds “right” on an archtop (due to the power and immediacy of the attack, lower degree of sustain with more rapid decay, midrange tonality).

    I also believe that the old Mississippi bluesmen from the Depression era typically couldn’t afford Gibsons, and more affordable options like Harmony and Silvertone were used. McDowell was a sharecropper in the Mississippi hill country that played picnics, fish fries and parties. In his last baker’s dozen of years, after becoming famous in the blues revival era, he acquired a couple of electric guitars, both 335-style. (More on those later in this thread.) But prior to the early ‘60s, a Harmony guitar would likely have been what he could afford.

    Early pictures of McDowell show him with what is almost certainly a battered old Harmony archtop.

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    The last photograph was later used for the album released posthumously, Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings.

    [​IMG]

    The story goes that in September of 1959 in Como, Mississippi, Fred McDowell “emerged from the woods and ambled over to his neighbor Lonnie Young’s front porch with a guitar in hand. Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins were there recording the Young brothers’ fife and drum ensemble, as well as the raggy [sic] old country dance music of their neighbors, the Pratcher brothers…”

    Their chance meeting and recording of farmer Fred in his overalls helped fuel the blues/folk revival. It certainly changed McDowell’s life. He became a recording artist and was catapulted to international fame. His music influenced Bonnie Raitt, his rendition of "You Gotta Move" was covered by The Rolling Stones.

    But back to that guitar. The pictures show a well-worm archtop sans pickguard that was in places secured with tape. Looking closely, you see a wooden instead of metal tailpiece, and it had two painted on pin stripes in lieu of binding. I think it’s a safe bet that Fred McDowell’s guitar that day was a WWII era Harmony Archtone H1215.

    upload_2021-4-13_21-36-16.png

    I am very familiar with the brand and even that series of archtops. As I’ve already said, I have a Harmony archtop. But I also began my guitar-playing life in 1967 on an Archtone H1213.

    1973 LGO at Camp Bandina with Dad's Harmony H1213 - 1.png

    There are other guitars to discuss, pics of other guitars Fred McDowell had and/or was pictured with. But this original post is long enough already.
     
  2. Dan German

    Dan German Doctor of Teleocity

    Posts:
    11,424
    Joined:
    Feb 21, 2008
    Location:
    Left of the Left Coast
    My first guitar was a horrible little Stella. My second, a Harmony Sovereign flat-top (cedar top) that my guitar teacher went with me to look at based on a classified ad in the newspaper. He played a bit, whispered “just buy it” in my ear, and it went home with me. Within days, by total coincidence, my stepfather handed me an album and said “listen to this.” It was Mance Lipscomb, and the cover photo showed him with a Sovereign like mine. Wish I still had that guitar...
     
    Crows, nojazzhere, Greggorios and 3 others like this.
  3. kiwi blue

    kiwi blue Tele-Afflicted

    Posts:
    1,789
    Joined:
    Nov 14, 2005
    Location:
    Wellington, New Zealand
    Eagerly awaiting your next long post (without sarcasm). One of my all time favourite players. Do you have any info on the types of slide he used? IIRC, in the spoken intro to "I Do Not Play No Rock n Roll" he talks about using a beef bone.
     
    drewg and LGOberean like this.
  4. drewg

    drewg Tele-Meister

    Posts:
    322
    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2020
    Location:
    Pacific NW
    I like that research tangent. (My roofer called them the ‘honey-cans’). When I first saw the photos you shared, I thought what you said is tape holding it together were painted decorations on the binding, but I see your right. Looks like masking tape.

    I love the Delta blues!
     
    LGOberean likes this.
  5. Dave Hicks

    Dave Hicks Friend of Leo's

    Posts:
    2,176
    Joined:
    Mar 28, 2003
    Location:
    Northeastern Indiana
    Thanks, very interesting, and extra points for the Shirley Collins mention. :)

    D.H.
     
    LGOberean likes this.
  6. hemingway

    hemingway Poster Extraordinaire

    Posts:
    8,123
    Joined:
    Mar 14, 2012
    Location:
    London, UK
    I have the CD of that porch session somewhere, some interesting stuff on it.
     
    LGOberean likes this.
  7. Churchjack

    Churchjack Tele-Meister

    Posts:
    402
    Joined:
    Oct 22, 2017
    Location:
    Texas
    Thanks, LGO! Love Fred McDowell, his "Red Cross Store" has always sent chills down my spine.
     
    LGOberean, tanplastic and Greggorios like this.
  8. JRapp

    JRapp Tele-Holic

    Age:
    63
    Posts:
    723
    Joined:
    May 20, 2019
    Location:
    Phoenix, AZ
    A glass bottleneck, homemade. As far as guitars, I've seen pics of him with a Kay Aristocrat archtop and a 335-type import electric.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2021
    LGOberean likes this.
  9. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

    Age:
    67
    Posts:
    12,620
    Joined:
    May 31, 2008
    Location:
    Corpus Christi, Texas
    McDowell’s uncle Gene Shields was a guitarist and leader of a trio. It was from his uncle Gene that Fred first learned “bottleneck” style, although “bottleneck” was something of a misnomer in Gene Shields’ case. He had taken a beef rib bone and filed in down smooth and played with it on his pinky.

    As for Fred's own style, yes, he started with bone but later switched to glass. I read somewhere what bottle it was made from, I'm trying to find that quote again. It was a short piece of glass, worn on his ring finger between the first and second knuckles. Here is a late pic of him using it on an acoustic archtop modified with some kind of pickup. FYI: the pics were taken at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1964.

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    upload_2021-4-14_9-35-54.png
     
  10. drewg

    drewg Tele-Meister

    Posts:
    322
    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2020
    Location:
    Pacific NW
    That pickup by his thumb looks like one of those Harmony ‘hershey bar’ pickups, though it looks like it’s raised up off the top resting on the other metal piece?

    Those also look like Harmony bakelight ‘cupcake’ dials.
     
  11. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

    Age:
    67
    Posts:
    12,620
    Joined:
    May 31, 2008
    Location:
    Corpus Christi, Texas
    I don't recall seeing a pic of him with a Kay Aristocrat, but then I've seen him playing some archtops that I can't identify. If you can locate that pic, I'd sure like to see it.

    Also regarding guitars he is pictured with, it should be pointed out that he did not own a guitar until one Mr. Taylor from Texas gifted him one in 1941. McDowell was 37 at the time! :eek: So throughout his childhood, teens and well into his adult life, he played on borrowed guitars. He was largely self-taught.

    McDowell said of himself,

    I've also read accounts of him being invited to sing with bands, and when they'd take a break, he pick up someone's guitar and play.

    I imagine that most pics of him that we see were taken after the Lomax recordings and record deals and festivals and tours were coming his way. So by that time most of the guitars he's been photographed with were probably his. But perhaps not all. On the cover of his 1969 I Do Not Play No Rock 'n' Roll album, he is pictured with a flattop guitar.

    upload_2021-4-14_14-13-5.png

    It was actually the first album that featured his electric guitar (a 335-style I'll talk about later). I'm guessing that the title for the album was used to calm the fears of the Newport Beach/blues/folk purists, and therefore the cover art selected for the album was of him with an acoustic. Could have been his guitar, I suppose, but you'd have to prove it to me.

    BTW, the line used for the album's title was a cherry-picked quote, or half-quote. It was a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek saying that McDowell used on more than one occasion. The full thing goes...

     
  12. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

    Age:
    67
    Posts:
    12,620
    Joined:
    May 31, 2008
    Location:
    Corpus Christi, Texas
    Okay, I found the information on McDowell’s slide. He first tried the blade of a pocketknife to copy his uncle’s beef rib bone slide, but soon switched to a glass bottleneck. After many experiments, he settled on his homemade slide made from the neck off a Gordon’s gin bottle. It was about an inch long, which was his choice because it worked for his style of playing. He didn’t play full chords barred with a bottleneck, so the short neck was just right for his single line playing.
     
    JRapp likes this.
  13. JRapp

    JRapp Tele-Holic

    Age:
    63
    Posts:
    723
    Joined:
    May 20, 2019
    Location:
    Phoenix, AZ
    Out where I work in the desert boonies, there are ghost towns and old mines all over the place. The necks of the old whiskey bottles last the longest because they're thicker. I had a few 100+ yr old blued glass slides made of those about 1"-2" long and I gave one to Louisiana Red and I think I gave Lil' Ed one too.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2021
    Dano-caster likes this.
  14. Dano-caster

    Dano-caster Tele-Meister

    Posts:
    451
    Joined:
    Nov 12, 2012
    Location:
    Snore'n desert
    Just dusted off that album...Playing now.The opening monologue was interesting.Good thing they have it in print on the back of the cover...He says blues is reels and reels is blues Interesting concept.Possible regional vernacular?
     
  15. Jared Purdy

    Jared Purdy Friend of Leo's

    Age:
    61
    Posts:
    3,701
    Joined:
    Jan 26, 2010
    Location:
    Toronto, Ontario.
    I have " I Do Not Play No Rock'n Roll" and one other, but it's hard to tell from the cover what the guitars are. Great music though. Interesting post!
     
IMPORTANT: Treat everyone here with respect, no matter how difficult!
No sex, drug, political, religion or hate discussion permitted here.