A crucial factor in recognizing blues and gospel songs as what they are, is the way they sound. Through close focus on twelve recorded performances, this chapter illuminates characteristic details of form, style, genre, and historical period. These recordings should not necessarily be understood as the “best” of their type, but as examples which typify the features under discussion.
“Fred McDowell's Blues”
Fred McDowell, voice and guitar; Miles Pratcher, guitar; Fanny Davis, comb.
Recorded September 21, 1959 in Como, Mississippi.
Recorded in early stereo during a field trip by Alan Lomax, “Fred McDowell's Blues” is suggestive of a very old style of folk blues; the generic title reflects its non-commercial origin. The two guitars provide a steady foundation, with Pratcher setting down a regular “boom-chick” beat in a swing rhythm and McDowell adding a simple repeating melodic pattern or other more prominent lines. The guitars offer a riveting support, and foil, to McDowell's voice. Their pace is upbeat, and speeds up during the song; this is characteristic of older folk blues, as is the single “drone” chord to which they remain anchored throughout. McDowell's guitar reinforces Pratcher's rhythm, but he plays other lines too, often doubled by the kazoo-like sound of Davis' comb. He tends to play a simple, repetitive riff, and when he sings, his guitar loosely follows his vocal melody. He also takes two brief instrumental solos in the middle of the song, similar to the lines he plays while singing. In the solos you can hear especially clearly his use of a slide, making a fluid and sharp-edged sound similar to that of the comb.