McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee, United States. His parents were farmers, who both died while Fred was in his youth. He took up the guitar at the age of 14 and was soon playing for tips at dances around Rossville. Seeking a change from plowing fields, he moved to Memphis in 1926, where he worked in the Buck-Eye feed mill, which processed cotton into oil and other products. In 1928, he moved to Mississippi to pick cotton. He finally settled in Como, Mississippi, in 1940 or 1941 (or maybe the late 1950s), where he worked as a full-time farmer for many years while continuing to play music on weekends at dances and picnics.
After decades of playing for small local gatherings, McDowell was recorded in 1959 by roving folklore musicologist Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, on their Southern Journey field-recording trip. With interest in blues and folk music rising in the United States at the time, McDowell’s field recordings for Lomax caught the attention of blues aficionados and record producers, and within a couple of years, he had finally become a professional musician and recording artist in his own right. His LPs proved quite popular, and he performed at festivals and clubs all over the world.
McDowell continued to perform blues in the north Mississippi style much as he had for decades, sometimes on electric guitar rather than acoustic guitar. He was particularly renowned for his mastery of slide guitar, a style he said he first learned using a pocketknife for a slide and later a polished beef rib bone. He ultimately settled on the clearer sound he got from a glass slide, which he wore on his ring finger. While he famously declared, ”I do not play no rock and roll,” he was not averse to associating with younger rock musicians. He coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique and was reportedly flattered by The Rolling Stones’ rather straightforward version of his ”You Gotta Move” on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers. In 1965, he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival, together with Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Roosevelt Sykes and others.
McDowell’s 1969 album I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll, recorded in Jackson, Mississippi, and released by Malaco Records, was his first featuring electric guitar. It contains parts of an interview in which he discusses the origins of the blues and the nature of love. His live album Live at the Mayfair Hotel (1995) was from a concert he gave in 1969. Tracks included versions of Bukka White’s ”Shake ’Em On Down,” Willie Dixon’s ”My Babe,” Mance Lipscomb’s ”Evil Hearted Woman,” plus McDowell’s self-penned ”Kokomo Blues.” AllMusic noted that the album ”may be the best single CD in McDowell’s output, and certainly his best concert release”. McDowell’s final album, Live in New York (Oblivion Records), was a concert performance from November 1971 at the Village Gaslight (also known as The Gaslight Cafe), in Greenwich Village, New York.
McDowell died of cancer in 1972, aged 66, and was buried at Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. On August 6, 1993, a memorial was placed on his grave by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. The ceremony was presided over by the blues promoter Dick Waterman, and the memorial with McDowell’s portrait on it was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. The memorial stone was a replacement for an inaccurate (McDowell’s name was misspelled) and damaged marker. The original stone was subsequently donated by McDowell’s family to the Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. McDowell was a Freemason and was associated with Prince Hall Freemasonry; he was buried in Masonic regalia