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reprinted from Guitar Player f1agazine, November 1977


M ISSISS1PPl FRED McDOWELL was one of the most important rural blues guitar ists to come out 0/ the Blues Revival of the 1 960s. Undiscovueduntil/959, Fred wasfirst recorded by A Ian Lomax on one of the folk lorist's many field trips to the South. McDol1.'ell:s specially wa.s bottleneck slide, with an eerie vocal-like tone. In 1969 the blues s;ngu switched from acoustic to eleetric, whl'ch, if anything, only added intensity to that subtle. whining qaaln«

Mc Dowetl's playing influenced numerous rock and blues slide guitarists, including Bonnie Rail( and me Rolling Stones' Kl'ilh Richard. Here, his main protege. Honest Tom Pdmposello (who accompanied the Mississippi bluesman as boss guitarist from 1971 unti! McDowell's death in 1973), offers some insightful rememorances into Fred, the man, and Mississippi Fred, one ofAmerica's greates' blues guitarists.


• • • •

EVEN NOW, I can remember hearing my (i,st Mississippi Fred McDowell record. I remember monkeying around with· a slide piece for the guitar, saying to my wife: "Boy, if only I could learn to Jet that sound, I would leave for Mississipp.i tomorrow and find Fred McDoweH and persuade him to teach me," The kind of stuff dreams are made of. About one month tater, in November of 1970, I was going to get the chance to make a dream come true,

I was walking around the West Village in New York City one night, and I passed bythe old Gaslight club on MacDougal Street. Their sign read "Appearing next week: Mississippi Fred McDowelL" On opening night 1 was at the Gaslight two hours early, so I could get the first table. I sat there in awe, about five feet away from Fred, watching this old man of the blues execute some of his classic bottleneck guitar licks, making them sound brand _ new,

After the show, I weaseled my way backstage and approached him. I asked him about his music, and he answered without any reluctance. Then I finaUy got around to the bi.g question. "You know. Mr, McDowell, if I could, I'd really like to have the chance to take a few lessons from you. If you'd like to show me a few things while you're here jn New York, I'd be glad to pay you for the opportunity!" He just smiled and said, "Well, rn tell you. Some day this week, you just come up to where I'm staying at .. Give. me a call. and I'll show you whatever I can. There's no sense in. me taking any money for the few little things I can show you."

A Protege Remembers The Legendary Bottleneck Sty I-ist

By Tom Pomposello

As I got to know Fred better over the years, I found this 10 be indicative of the genuine musician he was, He would lake the lime out of his life to show his music to anyone who would asic, flattered that they were interested. Unlike so many artists who are reluctant to explain the intricacies of their styles for fear (often with good reason) of being ripped off and receiving no recognition. McDowell's philosophy was, "Well. that might be true; that's just what they may do. But I do F

, know that in their hearts, after I'm dead. and buried, they're always gonna rernem- I ber that I was the one that showed it to them even if they don't tell nobody else,"

I did call Fred while he was in town, and he said "Sure, come on up." I went to see him nervous as hell, brought along my guitar, and stuck my bass guitar (which I was playing in a rock band) in the trunk of my car. Well. he tried hard to show me things, but I couldn't do anything. 1 COUldn't get the fingerpicking motion coordinated. My intonation with the bottleneck would have made a dog howl .. but McDowell did get me started, I was about to leave when I decided that I would like

to redeem myself in my idol's eyes. I told him 1 played some bass. and asked if I could try to accompany him on a few numbers, Fred said, "Sure, why didn't you say so?" So I hurried downstairs to get my instrument, came Up, and plugged into an amp. We began playing, andevidently I was following him pretty well, because he kept throwing one song at me after another, each one -getting a bil faster and a little more intricate. A couple of times he laughed out loud, I guess surprised how this long-haired Italian kid from Long Island seemed so familiar with his songs. What Fred didn't know was that by Ibis time I had. collected all of his records and used to sit home and try to figure them out on guitar; when. I couldn't do that, I would play along with the records on my bass. Fred carried me through a few nurnbers, then paused for a moment. "Well. how about playing with me at.rhe Gaslight tonight?" he said laughing. I was kind of stunned by that question and made some sort of lame excuse as to how I had to get back to my job. Fred gave me every opportunity to change my mind, but my inhibitions won out. Before saying goodbye, he gave me a couple of rnernentos;- a'i1d l"gave' him a bottle of Beefeaters gin, More important, ·be_ gave me his address in Mississippi where he would be returning shortly.

We stayed in close touch. by mail, and when he returned to New York a few months later, I was musically ready .. I got in touch with his close friend and manager, Dick Waterman, and when Fred came to town, he stayed at my house. I worked the gigs with him in New York City, which were by tbis time getting to be quite frequent, This is how I began a relationship that lasted foralmost two years, until McDowell's death in July of 1973.

It would be trite to relate the way Fred turned my musical perspectives around. but perhaps the most important moments in my musical development occurred duro ing the time I spent with him at his mobile home in Como, Mississippi, enjoying his hospitality and that of his devoted wife, Ester Mae. Fred was recuperating from an operation that he would never fully recover from, and he still took the time to show me what Mississippi blues was really about.

McDowell was born .somewhere between 1903 and 1906. No one seems certain, because back then if you were black and living on a plantation no one kept accurate documentation of such things. He was born in Rossville, Tennessee-a fact which always used to bemuse Fred, "They call me Mississippi Fred, but really my home is in Rossville, Tennessee." He became interested in guitar when he

wa.s in his late teens, I. remember him tellinll me '6nc time. ~Whcn I was a boy, I think the first 'blues record I ever heard _was Blind Lemon Jefferson -s'inging 'Black Snake Moan.' 'O-oh, ain't got no mama, now.' Man. I tell you, I though', that was th~ p~ttiest lit.tle thing I'd ever heard." By thlS time, music was all around Fred. His uncle Gene Shields wal a guitarist and a leader of a trio. He credits Shields with being the first one he saw play' in the bottleneck style. His uncle had taken a beef rib bone and filed it down smooth and then played with it on his little finger.

Also in Uncle Gene's trio was a harmonica player named Cal Payne, who' s~owed Ftc" M John Henry." Cal's son Raymond was about the same age as Fred, wbo used to say, "He was a real- good pilar player, regular style, not boule-, neck. R But Raymond would never show anyone anything. "If you'd walk into the room when Raymond was playing," Fred recalle4. "he'd right away put the guitar cJ.own so you couldn't see what he was doing. Then he'd make some kind of c2'cu,~, 'I'm tired now' or 'My fingers burt ." • I often think this early experience was QOC of the reasons why McDowell alwa~s was so open about his style.I'Other mU$icians might try to lose you when they p~y with you to make themselves look better than you," he said, "but they don't know how bad it makes them look."

pespite Raymond Payne's reluctance to teachhim anything. Fred still insist~d that "no one could show me nothing _a."W?~~y.Everyone could play 'cept me. Ali·· ~be boYs. But I bad to learn things my own way. Even if you'd be showing me, I'd bave to go off on my own and get it my way. They'd all be playing ball or, and, I'd be practicing on Booster Green's guitar," (Eli "Booster" Green was an older friend and one-time mentor 'of Fred's with whom he was later reunited musically by Chris Strachwitz on a 1966 ~ording session for Arhoolie [Fred McDowell, Vol. ll]. It was Eli who taught McDowell the celebrated tune. "Write Me A Few lines" [see p. 99}.) The first sang Fred ever learned was Tommy Johnson's "Big, Fa~ Mama (With The Meat Shakin' On Your Bones)." "I learned it on one string," be explained, "then two, note by Dote. Man, I ~POUl worried that first string to death trying to learn that song." This note-by-note method was one that was goinS; to become an intricate part of Fred's lat~r day technical approach.

Even though McDowell experienced bis share of obstacles on guitar, he was always sought after as a vocalist. He would be invited to the old time Saturday night suppers and would always be asked to sing along with the other guitarists, When they would get tired, Fred would take over on guitar, too.

. Fred left Rossville when he was about 21, ~ired of plowing fields with a mule. Durmg a trip south to Cleveland. Missis!ippi .i~ the late_1920s at a Saturday night Juke jomt, he heard the legendary Charlie

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and consciously began to adapt several of

Patton's tunes to his own style. "Gravel Road" is his adaptation 'of Patton's "Down The Dirt Road Blues."

, McDowell -also spent a good deal of time in Memphis 'before he ultimately settled in Mississippi. He held down a variety of jobs as a laborer. In Memphis throughout the 19305 he tried to master the guitar but was hampered by not owning his Own instrument. While working at a dairy outside of Memphis, he got his first guitar. A white man from Texas, by the name of Mr. Taylor, whom Fred remembered quite fondly, presented it to him. This was 1941, just before Fred decided to move south to Mississippi and settle down near his sister.

It was in Como, Mississippi, that Fred McDowell was to ultimately refine the style that would one day classify him as one of the greatest country blues men of the postwar years.

In 1959, folklorist Alan lomax ventured into Northwestern Mississippi during a recording field trip of the southern United States. When Lomax came to Como, he inquired as to whether there were any local bluesrnen that he should hear. explaining that he was from a record company. Among the first names given was Fred McDowell.

Lomax found Fred at home that evening and proceeded to record him. Fred played well into the night for the session (from 8:00 P.M. until almost 7:00 A.M., as he recalls itl). When Lomax finally departed, he Itft with promises that these recordipgs would bring. McDowell fame and fortune. Well, he was half right. Despite the fact that the payment was nominal, the recordings when issued were met by much enthusiasm in folk and blues circles. What the recordings did for Fred was to establish him, at the age of 55, as one of the great "new discoveries" in the blues world.

Fred had the opportunity to play and record for a whole new audience. In J964, fully five years later. he performed at the_. Newport Folk Festival. By this time Arhoolie and Testament records had issued solo albums by McDowell. In 1965 and again in 1969, he toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. In Germany and especially Great Britain, he was wonderfully received. Rolling Stone Keith Richard heard Fred's version of the spiritual "You Got To Move" [see p. 98] and arranged it for the Rolling Stones' Stick)' Fingers album (Rolling Stones,

59100]. '

In 1969, Fred made country blues history in Great Britain. He recorded a solo album for the Transatlantic label using electric guitar. It seems odd today, but reaction at the time among purists was.

. mixed. Everyone was used to Chicago' blues played electrically, but Delta blues

, on electric guitar? One critic commented that he thought much of the subtlety, especially in McDowell's fills, was lost.

UU' ""'"LUI; I.;OULU ",",vc IIL'Cll rurrner trorn the truth. One listen to .. Arn"/jng Grace' performed on the electric instrument and you were a believer. St-rangely enough, the Instrument was very appropriate for the spirituals Fred loved to perform. That . Shimmering tone he used to create and, his sophisticated hand/bottleneck vibratowere seemingly intensified by the electric instrument. Likewise his blues numbers particularly t?e percussive, driving rhyth~ rmc patterns ID songs such as "Shake 'Em On Down" and "Drop Down Mama" were greatly enhanced. And the electric instrument undoubtedly made Fred's music more accessible to a new generation of blues enthusiasts. He was well aware of this and used to caution his admirers (quite tongue-in-cheek, I might add): "I do not play no rock'n'roll, y'all. Just the straight and natch'l blue?

. Prior to 1968. the maj ority of McDowell's recordings were performed on an acoustic guitar. either his old woodbodied National or his acoustic Hefner. I am not sure of the make of Fred's first electric; it was a red dual-pickup imitation of a Gibson ES-335. I only saw him use that electric once; by the time I, began playing with him, he. had a replacement. His old-electric konked out while he was on tour in California. and he had it assessed as-simply not worth repairing. By now, he had grown accustomed to the electric sound, and had no desire to go back to playing acoustic.

Fred found a good deal on a cherrycolored, mid-Sixties Trini Lopez Stan. dard model Gibson, This instruH,eJl! is not unlike the ES-335. except that 'the headstock has all six tuning machines on one side, like' a Gibson Thunderbird. or similar to a Fender. Instead of f-holes. the guitar had elongated, diamond-shaped soundholes, I can recall one night on stage, Rev. Gary Davis was in the audience .. He ca me up to playa zuest set, and Fred gave him his Gibson to use. McDowell left the stage. and Davis (who was blind) began retuning it. Feeling the strange headstock, he asked, "What kind of a guitar is this anyway that Fred's using? A Fender? What's Fred doing with a Fender?" A few people in the audience tried to explain that the, guitar was a Gibson, but Rev. Gary insisted that he

- knew a Fender from a Gibson.

McDowell used this Trini Lopez guitar until his death. The only modification he had done to it was to' slightly raise the strings, or more precisely, have the angle at which the strings touched the nut, altered. This was done by the installation of a small metal shim, sort of like a long inverted "U" just above the nut. This helped to raise the action ever so slightly in Vie lower position of the guitar, without resulting in higher action throughout, and not noticeably affecting the guitars intonation.

Fred used Black Diamond LightGauge Electric Strings (.0114, .014, .025, .031, .040, .051). Actually, the brand or

the gaug.e didn't matter much. sci long as the set-included a plain, unwound Whenever he bought a new set of strings •. before he laid the money on the counter; he made sure to check for thatunwound string, When he would play my guitar, he would always say, "Tom, I can', hardly do nothin' with this. You've gOl one or them wrapped G strings."

When playing straigh: acoustic, he would pick with his bare fingers-the thumb and index on his right hand. To get that acoustic clarity on an electric, he found that picks were a necessity. He simply used a regular plastic Ihumbpick and a plastic fingerpick on his index finger. His style of picking ranged from simple

. note-to-note to highly complex rhythmic and heavtly syncopated brush strokes, Or any combination of the two.

Most of McDowell's touring during the late Sixties and early Seventies was done in a Greyhound Bus. He hated to fly unless it was absolutely necessary. Consequently, he used to carry only a small practice amp with him, hoping that when he arrived at a club or festival, he could plug into whatever better equipment was available. Often times there would be nothing available, or else some welImeaning producer would want to record the blues man through his own amp, insisting tbat·it would be inaccurate to record a blues artist using someone else's equipment.

This was unfortunate, because those little amps were maybe 10 to IS watts, with one 8" speaker. and not really sufficient for his purposes. Sometimes a club would combat this by close-miking his amp through the PA system, but unless this was done absolutely right, the result was often a very muddy sound .. This is why many of Fred's recordings leave the listener with a false impression of his tone. I know. from his react jon to good amps that what he was after was a clean, clear sound with a good amounlof top end.

The first time Fred tried to play bottleneck guitar (as a child), he used a pocketknife to emulate the style his Uncle Gene bad using the beef rib bone .. It didn't take IODg for Fred to realize that in order to get ·the volume and clarity he wanted, he would have to switch to a glass bottleneck. Since his style did not utilize full chords ·barred with a bottleneck, he chose to use a short neck (about I~ long) 01T of a Gordon's gin bottle. I remember him teUing me how many different things he had tried, but this gin bottleneck was the one be really liked.

McDowell made his bottleneck, I believe, by first scribing the boule with some sharp object along the lines where he wanted it to break. Then he ran it under bot water in a bathtub, then under cold water white he gently tapped it along the scribed seams. It worked on rhe first try. ,(Fate must have been with him, because I could never get this method to work for met)

It's funny how a. musician can get attacbed to something like a bottleneck.

, I

One evening, I saw Fred nervously rummaging through his guitar case, and then breathinga sigh of relief upon finding his treasured Gordon's bottleneck, "Torn, if . I'd have lost that," he said. "I might as well turned around and wcnt back home." Once in Germany. when Fred was touring with the American Folk Blues Festival. he told me how he reluctantly lent his bottleneck 10 Buddy Guy, who wanted to try to work in a couple of slide tunes. Buddy returned and explainedthat he had accidentally dropped the slide, and it had broken. Fred almost fainted. He tried in vain to find a replacement in downtown Hamburg. He did finally find a glassware bottle store and tried to explain to the proprietor how he would like him to cut off the neck of this one boule. The two struggled through the !a.nguage difficulties until finally the shopkeeper nodded his head and gave an understanding smile. He disappeared into the backroom and returned, beaming, about fifteen minutes later with the bottle beautifully cut into an antique vase!

'Mississippi Fred wore his bottleneck on his third or fourth finger, depending on the tuning he was using, He used three basic tunings: open E, open A, and standard tuning. On his earlier acoustic records, he often used the A tuning [E, A, E, A, CII, E, low to high]. For this tuning he wore the bottleneck on his little finger. In standard tuning as well (which he used infrequently), he would wear the bouleneck on his little finger, playing usually in

. the key of E, using the bottleneck sparingly, on perhaps a lead descending pentatonic scale done on l'he high E Siring. In open E tuning [E, B, E, Gil, B. E, low to high] Fred wore the bottleneck on his third (or ring) finger; He preferred to use his bottleneck more often in the E tuning, because it lends itself more toward

melodic playing. .

It is important to point out that when I refer to E or A luning in Fred's case, I'm talking about a very relative thing. When he tuned his guitar to an E, he would not always tune to a perfect £. This is not to say his guitar wasn't in tune. but more correctly that his guitar was ill tune with his voice. Usually, before going onstage, McDowell would sing a few bars and tune the guitar to where it felt right for his voice. There was no problem, since the pitch of the open tuning determines the key of the song .. By my own estimation, he did have an exquisite sense of relative pitch, anyway. I saw him stop a song more than once because he was unsat isfied with the tuning, saying. "Wait a minute, y'all, I'm sorry, but I just-can't play for you the way I want unless this is tuned just so."

It might be advantageous at this point. to define bottleneck playing as opposed 10'· "slide guitar" playing, While either makes use of a metal slide bar, piece of pipe. or an actual bottleneck, the basic approach is different.

A slide guitarist might play in either open or standard tuning. but usually favors standard. The player will most

· often use a nat pick and use the slide to

· play single~notc leads or double-stops. at most. In other words, what. emerges is not really a self-accompanied style. but one where the slide is able' to supplement the guitarist'S already existing style. Lwould call Duane and his predecessor. Earl Hooker, slide guitarists rather than bottleneck guitarists. Slide guitarists are generally ensemble players, throwing out chords and fills like conventional guitarists, and then perhaps adding a solo with the slide. Although they do nOI usually fingerpiek, they have the added versatility of using more keys. It is this inherent limitation. of being locked into one or two

; keys in the open-s un ing bottleneck approach that is also its strength.

Bottleneck playing, in my estimation, refers only to open tunings and fingerpicking, It is generally conceived of as a -self-contained style. Anyone who has ever messed around in an open tuning can see how wonderful having three strings tuned to the same note can be .. In E tuning, a usual picking pattern takes on the characteristics of a monotonic or "dead thumb" bass line, combined with fingerpicking a usuallysyncopated melody line

· with the first finger. The strength in the

· bottleneck lies in the fact that you can be

· thumbplcking your bass notes open, while

· playing melody notes at the 12th fret or

higher. This, as ) have said, is also the , limitation. It is nearly impossible to play , that style in anothcr key without altering : the tuning. Try it! In E tuning, barre ; across the 3rd fret. Now, while wearing

. : the bottleneck, try to reach up 10 highG at the lSth fret on the E string. No way.

So, fingerpicked bottleneck playing almost demands that you be in open tuning, because to keep that monotonic bass line going, and sti!! use the bottleneck in the upper extremeties, you've got to be

· tuned open. This style, incidentally, precludes many chord changes. This is why so much bottleneck music has that "drone" sound with the melody superimposed. This is aiso why Fred favored the short bottleneck. Most of his playing, and that early Mississippi ceurury sound. is all based in the tonic. He would pick the open bass strings with his thumb, and at the same time be picking melody lines with his fingerpick, using the bottleneck to affect the pitch. Sometimes, as in "You Got To Move," he might depart from that procedure and simply play the melody line on the bass strings alone.

When he would sing, the guitar part would echo his vocal phrasing almost exactly. Much has been made of the McDowell style of letting the voice trail off and letting the vocalized bottleneck fill in. Listen to his version of, "Baby, Please Don', Go" [I Do NO.1 Pia» No . Rod 'N' Roll] where he would be playing and singing simultaneously, "Baby, please don't go," then maybe the next time through. he would sing only "Baby, please .... " -letting the vibrato of t he bottleneck vocalize the two missing words. He would .say, "When you hear me play, j f you listen real

A Selected McDowell Discography

dose, you'll hear the guuar say the same home again, I visited him there in Missis-

tbing ·fm saying. 100." He was very !lat- sippi that following spring, Be was in Solo albums: Mlssissippi Fred

tered one time by a perceptive fan who good spirits and showed me the time of Mcisowell. Arhoolie (Box 9195, Berke-

came up after the show and said, "You- my life, A few days after, I returned home ley, CA 94709), F 1021; My 1I00ite Is I"

know. that's the first time I ever heard a and called, only to find Fred the The Dello:-Testament [1085 Valley View

talking guitar," That was the effect Fred hospital. We talked over the phone, He Ave, Pasadena. CA 91107), T-2209;

was out to achieve, This is a very funda- never complained, but I could tell the Fred McDo Il,t'll. Vol. II. Arhoolie,

mental point about the blues that is easy to great pain he was in, Instead, he kept F 1027; AmazinK Grace (with the

lose sight 'of. In the traditional blues. the asking me how I was doing and told me to Hunter's Chapel Singers). Testament,

lyric is everything. As Fred would tell me, say hello to my wife. Chris. and his "little 'T-2219; Long Wa_I' From Home, Mile-

"I love t-he guitar. but it's the words you're buddy." my son Travis, On July 5, 1973, stone (Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA

saying that people are listening to." we headed back down to Mississippi to 94710), MSO 9300]; Fred McDowell

During the winter of 1971, when he attend his funeral. Fred McDowell 'had And Johnny Woods, Rounder (186'

was staying with me between engagements died from abdominal cancer. Willow Ave .• Somerville, M A 02144),

a. t ~he Gaslight, I wfas in the process ~f r _ I 2007; Mississippi Fred McDowell 6,

aymg down some a my own demo trac S To my knowledge, that informal ses- London. Sire (Warner Bros.), SES

at a recording studio in New York. I asked sion he had donewith me in New York 97018; Mississippi Fred McDowell In

-Fred if he would like to come along and f' London. Vol, fl. Transatlantic. TRA

City was the last time he set 001 in a

do some coaching, maybe sing or playa d f h 203,', When I LA,v My Burden Down (in-

recording studio. Lam vel)' prou 0 I at

duet with me. Although he was not feeling dudes cuts by Furry Lewis), Biograph


well (something I did not realize at the AU too often, musicians who stop and BLP-120-17; Fred McDo w ell And His _

time), he agreed in an instant. One of the . ' .Blues Boys, Arhoolie, 1046,' I Do Not

analyze the style of another musician, r-

songs he led me in that day, "Hey, Little make the mistake of never looking beyond Play No Rock' N' Roll. Capitol. ST -409;

Girl (Who Made Your Dress)," was so I h Mississl'P,' pi Fred McDowell. 1904-/972,

the man's technical prowess. . ave never

effective we decided to issue it on my own ik M' ' Just Sunshine, JSS-4', Keep Your LAmp

heard anybody play or sing II e IS5IS-

album Honest Tom Pomposello (Oblivion, sippi Fred McDowell. But I am convinced Trimmed And Burning. Arhoolie, 1068;

OO.,6J. A few days after this session, Fred that what made Fred great as a musician Mississippi Fred McDOWI'll Live If! New

returned home, cancelling the remainder Th York, Oblivion. ad. L With others: Big

was what made him great as a man. at

of his tour because-of severe stomach d Mama Thornton In Europe. Arhoolie,

. ()' , h ' "Mississippi mystique" of his, that un e-

pains, n the advice of his doctor, t ey F 1028; Honest Tom Po mposello,

d d hi h' finable something that is the spirit of the

operate. , an e w~s not to _eave IS • ,Oblivion, od. 6,

'~""~~~~Bmsa~r~e;al~b~lu:e:s~, ~ma~~~ZD~"".a';~~~;S~~~~~~--------------~



PLAYER The M.p~ne For PriJr~otUIl And Amateur Guitarists :

'You Got To Move'

Fred's bottleneck adaptation of this beautiful old spiritual is probably his most popular tune, The Rolling Stones' version of the song, inspired by Mississippi Fred's recording, can be heard on Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records. 59100). The so ng is in [E. B. E. Gil, B. E, low to high] and makes use of melody notes 0 n the bass strings in un ison wi th the vocal, The Gs throughout the piece should be played between G-natural

By Fred McDowell

and Gil, Two versions by McDowell are available on LP: Fred Mc Do. well. Vol. II [, 1027] and Mississippi Fred McDowell Live In New York (Oblivion, ad, I).


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