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Shake ‘Em On Down – the Godfather of Hill Country Blues

The North Mississippi hill country is peppered with the legacies of legendary blues artists.

Local filmmaker Joe York and host of Highway 61 Radio and blues historian Scott Barretta chose to tell the story of Fred McDowell, a man who started out picking cotton and went on to inspire the likes of Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones.

York and Barretta’s documentary, “Shake ‘Em on Down,” released under Highway 61 Films and part of the Southern Documentary Project, was nominated for a Southeast Emmy this past week.

According to York, the journey started when he stumbled across an old 16-millimeter film called “Bluesmaker” by Christian Garrison while researching at the University of Mississippi’s Blues Archives. “Bluesmaker” is only about 20 minutes long, but it provided the duo with a sort of springboard for the rest of the documentary.

“Our idea was, let’s take this old film that belongs to the university that we didn’t even know existed, and take what Christian Garrison started and grow it into a larger film and talk to all these folks who knew and worked with [McDowell] when he was alive,” York said. “We didn’t know where it was going to take us, we didn’t know what we were going to find, but we knew that we had this incredible work to build on, so that’s where we started.”

Watching “Bluesmaker” was one thing, but telling Fred McDowell’s story was quite another. McDowell, a Rossville, Tenn. native, was born around 1906, although it’s said he didn’t know his exact birth date. In 1928, he moved to Mississippi to pick cotton, landing in Hill Country Blues central, Como, Miss., about 1940. He lived in Como until his death in 1972.

McDowell started playing guitar at the age of 14, and he is by-and-large considered to be the first hill country blues man to reach the mainstream. Like many of his friends and neighbors in Panola and Tate counties, he was recorded by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. While that recording brought national and international recognition, McDowell, called “Shake ‘Em Down” by his friends, had gained local popularity long before Lomax darkened his door.

The challenge in bringing the man to life through a documentary is one York said he and Barretta faced head-on.

“The hardest part about this is, you’re making a film about someone who passed away about 40 years ago,” York said. “What’s really important about the way we made this film and the way the guys at Southern Documentary Project work is, it’s really important to let people tell their story in their own words. So we don’t have a narrator, we don’t have someone telling you what you’re supposed to take away or learn from it.”

Editing the 50-plus hours of footage they ended up with down to an hour wasn’t easy, but York said it was worth it. Letting people tell their stories and editing it in a way that creates a narrative became like a puzzle for the filmmakers.

Finding the people who knew him, and documenting their accounts of McDowell led York and Barretta across the world, to England, Seattle, North Carolina, California and Mississippi.

Their journey first brought them to the South London home of Shirley Collins. The now-80-year-old was only 19 when she traveled across the pond to travel with Lomax on his quest to document American music.

“She was there the moment that we can attribute to this big change in Fred’s life, when Alan Lomax sees him play, and writes down “Perfection” in his notebook,” Barretta said. “There was this issue of us wanting to address that particular moment, right? That was the moment from which we can see a change in his life, of him becoming a famous figure in the blues and folk scene, influencing people like Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones.”

In “Shake ‘Em on Down,” Collins explains that, to really appreciate Hill Country Blues as its own subgenre, one has to understand the differences between the style and other subgenres.

Barretta also acknowledged the differences, explaining why McDowell’s beer-bottleneck slide guitar is so unique.

Often referred to as “feel music,” R.L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric explained in the film that it’s a “little rougher, hypnotic, pounding beat,” even though none of it follows a real time signature other than what the artist feels in the moment.

“We can talk about the Delta Blues as tending to follow more typical changes, the 1-4-5 pattern and the 12-bar chords. When you go to the Hill Country, it tends to be a lot more groove-oriented. There’s a lot more playing off of one chord,” Barretta said. “It was a lot of playing in juke joints and house parties, and R.L. Burnside’s music is based on Fred McDowell. He’s kind of the Godfather of the Mississippi Hill Country sound.”

McDowell, who was self-taught and didn’t play anything but a borrowed guitar until he got his own at age 40, never played chords, opting instead to deconstruct songs and revert them back to a more African sound. Similar to his friend Otha Turner’s legendary fife and drum music, McDowell and other Hill Country artists coupled a more primitive style with soulful, piercing lyrics and vocals.

This distinct sound was not wasted on surprising protege of McDowell’s, the young Bonnie Raitt. Dick Waterman, of Oxford, managed both Raitt and McDowell, and once the blues man started touring, had Raitt travel along as his opening act.

This was during the “Folk Revival” of the 60s and 70s, when many Baby Boomers shed the squeaky-clean acts of the previous decades in favor of more gritty, honest artists. Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie were also borne of this movement. Greenwich Village in New York City was the mecca for movers-and-shakers in folk and blues music, and the Gaslight was the equivalent of Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe for artists looking to make it to the bigtime. While opening for McDowell at the Gaslight, Raitt said her luck completely changed.

“Next thing I know, I’ve got a record deal,” Raitt said in the film. “And it was because of Fred McDowell. Fred McDowell changed my life.”

McDowell, however, remained in Mississippi in a somewhat humble existence. After he got famous, he worked at the Stuckey’s truck stop in Como as a gas pump attendant. According to the film, it was not uncommon for booking agents, collaborators and other folks in the music business to call Stuckey’s asking for McDowell, since he never had a phone. They’d send plane tickets to Europe to the truck stop, and McDowell would tour for a couple months and then return home.

York said he felt it was his and Barretta’s responsibility, both as fans of McDowell’s music and the people charged with telling his story, to do everything they could to make the film happen, but he never imagined it would take them this far. The Southeast Emmy nomination is nice, but the real reward, he said, is knowing more people will see the film and learn about the culture and people of North Mississippi.

“I figured we’d interview a handful of people in and around the Como area. I figured it would be mostly in Mississippi. But the thing is, Fred’s life and his music took him so many places, and tracking him down and finding these people took us across the ocean, across the United States, and of course, right here in our backyard,” York said. “Fred’s music went all over the world, and to tell the story, we had to do that, too.”

The Southeast Emmy Awards ceremony will be held on June 16 in Atlanta. To watch “Shake ‘Em On Down,” visit http://southdocs.org/projects/shakem.