Friday, November 5, 2010

November 5: Mississippi Fred McDowell, "When I Lay My Burden Down"

Artist: Mississippi Fred McDowell
Song: "When I Lay My Burden Down"
Album: Live At The Mayfair Hotel
Year: 1969 (recorded) / 1995 (released)

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While it is not saying that none of the genre in question have produced brilliant studio work, the fact remains that for a few styles of music, it is within live performances that the spirit of the sound is best captured.  Due to the nature of the particular sound, a more organic, or perhaps improvisational element is necessary to best convey the music, and this can be seen most clearly within the genres of blues and jazz.  Another element these two styles share is the fact that in their early days, much of the music went unrecorded for a number of reasons, and many of the finest performers were likely lost.  Yet with blues music in particular, some of the most talented musicians who recorded still remain largely unknown, and this in itself is perhaps an even more tragic case.  Representing this point perfectly, there are few blues musicians who had as much impact, yet remain in relative obscurity as Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Standing as one of the most important architects of the Delta blues, artists ranging from The Rolling Stones to Bonnie Raitt to the North Mississippi All-Stars have all drawn some or most of their sound from his style.  In the case of McDowell, he made many fine studio recordings, and yet it is the 1995 live release, From The Mayfair Hotel, that best displays his talent.  The album is perhaps the most raw recording ever released, and one can quickly understand why Mississippi Fred McDowell is so important to music within the sound of his take on the traditional song, "When I Lay My Burden Down."

Live At The Mayfair Hotel is actually a combination of the two live releases that stemmed from his visits to the London hotel in 1969, and the original recordings have been cleaned up, making the album one of the most stunning blues releases in history.  Truth be told, by the time 1969 rolled around, a majority of the blues musicians still playing that "updated" their sound to become more of a hybrid with rock or jazz, and yet throughout the recording, one can hear that Mississippi Fred McDowell is clearly quite proud to stay "pure."  In fact, at the opening of one track, McDowell somewhat jokes, "I do not play no rock and roll, I play just old country blues and I hope you like it...and if you don't like it, I'm gonna play it anyhow..."  The statement is completely accurate, as "When I Lay My Burden Down" features as raw and simple an arrangement as one could find, with little more than McDowell's trademark gritty slide guitar and his foot stomping on the ground.  The slight echo that comes from both instruments draws the listener in instantly, as the crowd is so hushed that even the album can provide an amazingly intimate feeling.  The "twangy" tone that comes from McDowell's guitar is truly one of a kind, and throughout the song, he is able to build a tension that is simply unmatched elsewhere in history.  Not having any need to get louder or faster, the way in which he builds this through the almost hypnotic repetition makes "When I Lay My Burden Down" a blues masterpiece unlike any other.

The main difference one can hear in "When I Lay My Burden Down" in comparison to the rest of the work of Mississippi Fred McDowell is the presence of JoAnn Kelly on vocals.  Not only in the contrast of their vocal ranges, but the volume with which they sing is one of the reasons why "When I Lay My Burden Down" is as "true blues" as has ever been recorded.  Making the roots of blues quite obvious, there is a somber, spiritual feeling that is clearly conveyed, and it completely mesmerizes both the crowd as well as any listener of any musical persuasion.  As the duo work through the song, it is clear that while they both know it, they are letting the music and the mood dictate exactly where the lyrics will fall.  This in many ways epitomizes what music is all about, as both singers completely give in to the groove, and it is nothing short of stunning to hear them seamlessly trade words within a single musical phrase, leaving one to wonder if it was perfectly planned, or if McDowell and Kelly are simply in sync in a way never matched.  Much like the music, the shared vocals build an uncanny mood and tension, and even a non-religious person cannot avoid getting wrapped up in the sheer beauty and power of the performance.  Not needing anything more than a microphone, the completely stripped down and organic approach to the vocals is the key to making this version of "When I Lay My Burden Down" nothing short of legendary.

It is performances like the live version of "When I Lay My Burden Down" that makes it almost tragic that Mississippi Fred McDowell remains a bit of a footnote when it comes to blues music.  In both his timing as well as his sound, he is without question one of the "elder statesmen" of Delta blues, and the fact that he was still performing in the same raw and gritty style when most of his peers had "gone modern" serves as a testament to the purity within his sound.  Within moments of his Live At The Mayfair Hotel release, it is clear that he is the "real deal" of blues, and the distinctive tone of his voice, alongside his slightly more aggressive, dirtier sounding slide guitar makes him one of the most unique musicians in history.  Truth be told, Bonnie Raitt has often cited McDowell as one of her primary influences, and one can find covers of his songs scattered across music history.  Live At The Mayfair Hotel is without question one of the most powerful live performances ever captured, as McDowell "schools" the crowd throughout the album, and there are a number of points where he openly states how much he is enjoying the setting.  At the time of the recording, McDowell was approaching seventy years old, and yet the power and passion with which he plays is far beyond that of nearly any other musician of the era.  Proving that staying true to your sound and keeping things simple is often the best way to go, there are few blues songs that can compare to the power and presence of Mississippi Fred McDowell's live 1969 performance of "When I Lay My Burden Down."

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