Country blues singer and electric slide guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell died on July 3, 1972 at the age of 68. Eight months prior, he recorded his last album, a live concert recording made for radio station WKCR at the famed Greenwich Village Gaslight Cafe also known as The Village Gaslight on MacDougal Street in New York City.
As well as being an incredible album, it also connects the story of a blues-loving couple and a short-lived record label resurfacing after 50 years.
The session was recorded by Fred Seibert, a student at the time, for his Saturday afternoon blues show on WKCR-FM at Columbia University. Joining McDowell was Tom Pomposello (Honest Tom) on bass who was also friends with Seibert.
Pomposello, a multi-instrumentalist and blues enthusiast, was co-owner of a hippie record store called “Kropotkin Records” (for anarchist Peter Kropotkin) in Huntington, New York. After introducing himself to Fred McDowell in the early 70s, he became his bassist. His passion for the blues led him to teach students the history of American blues in the early 80’s alongside teaching music as a professor at Five Towns College in Long Island, New York. He died in a car accident in January 1999.
In the liner notes, McDowell writes:
You know he first came to see me and said, “Fred, can I come see you, do you know where you live? Well, I wasn’t doing anything up there alone and I told him to come up. When he arrived there, he brought three instruments with him – a guitar, a harmonica and a bass, and he asked me to say which he was the best. Well, I took it to the harmonica. All right, I said, let’s go to the guitar. Then the bass – I said, “just hold it there baby, that’s the one.” Tom, it was a real pleasure to have you play with me. Roll baby.
Pomposello was keen to release his own album and after discussing the best way to achieve this, Seibert suggested that he start his own label. They joined forces (along with Dick Pennington) and launched Oblivion Records with the release of this live recording by Fred McDowell.
In Seibert’s words “Over the next four years we produced and released six blues and jazz records. We had a local hit on New York radio, had a blast and lost a lot of money and sleep. The company went bankrupt in 1976.” Although it did not sell well, something they attributed to New York’s near-invisible blues scene, Pomposello released “Blues from the Apple” on the label , featuring a mix of musicians working in New York in the early 70s on which he also contributed bass.
Fifty years later, during lockdown, Seibert, who became an American television producer, co-founder of MTV and CEO of FredFilms, decided to relaunch the back catalog of Oblivion Records. Living in New York is their second digital release.
Living in New York
Whereas Living in New York has historical interest, being McDowell’s last recording, it’s also one heck of a session that buzzes with authenticity. All that magic that Alan Lomax talked about in his book “The Land Where The Blues Began” is there.
Lomax described McDowell as a “quiet, silky-voiced, hunched-shouldered companion, eager to record”, which the liner notes reflect when recalling that first encounter:
In 1959, folklorist Alan Lomax ventured to northwest Mississippi on a recording trip to the southern United States. He drove through the town of Como, located between highways 51 and 55. Lomax explained that he was from a record company and asked if there were any local musicians he should hear. Among the first names given was Fred McDowell. Lomax found Fred at home that evening and proceeded to check him in. Fred played late into the night for Lomax (the session lasted from 8 p.m. until about 7 a.m. as Fred remembers). When Lomax finally left, he left Fred the promise that these recordings would bring him worldwide fame and a large sum of money. Lomax was at least half right. Despite the fact that the payment was nominal, the recordings were received with great enthusiasm. Although only eleven songs were released (on two Prestige discs: Deep South-Sacred and Sinful; and Yazoo Delta-Blues and Spirituals; and two Atlantic discs: Sounds of the South; and Roots of the Blues), the reaction was immediate. . The blues world had discovered Fred McDowell.
Of “The Land Where The Blues Began”, Lomax adds: “The blues, speaking through Fred, sounded like a deep-voiced black herald of the law, with a celestial, silver-voiced choir answering it with the high strings. The album opens with one of his best-known tracks, Shake ’em on Down, what Lomax called a “sexy dance tune…that now the whole world is jumping on”. Joined by Pomposello on bass, it’s as rock n roll as it gets.
For me, it’s after its popular centerpiece that this album becomes interesting. McDowell later reminds the audience “it’s the blues y’all, I don’t play rock n roll…I play from the heart”. When he says this, Lomax’s words come flooding back… “No one on record, perhaps, has performed sweet old country blues as well as he has. His smooth, multitonal vocal style lends subtle pathos to every phrase of his songs and evokes eloquent responses from his gnarled, wise plowing fingers. His travels in the treble strings take us to the region of cries of the heart or, sometimes, of tender ecstasy.
A personal highlight is the slow blues ‘Mercy’. The liner notes draw attention to the opening stanza, “which consists of unusual lyrics (unusual for Fred, that is) and lines of uncertain origin. “Everyone is crying out for mercy, Lord, what does mercy mean? Well, if it means anything, Lord, have mercy on me!”
The quality of this recording is superb, according to Seibert, they borrowed recording equipment from the university’s news department. It included a high quality one-track monaural Nagra recorder intended for film and field recording and three microphones (Shure and Electro-Voice), the mixer was a Shure M68.
Despite all his knowledge of musicology, Alan Lomax was clearly moved by McDowell’s playing, he gets quite fiery in his description of McDowell’s virtuosity and poetry, using it to compare the boring, mechanical offerings of modern times” having fun in the upper registers” of the guitar, more interested in “showing how many notes they can play and how many chords they know than what the song has to say…”
Live in New York brilliantly captures that Mississippi mystique of McDowell’s music and also tells the story of the enthusiasts who wanted to share it with the rest of the world.
Purchase the album via Bandcamp here: https://oblivionrecords2.bandcamp.com/album/live-in-new-york