Ready for some great blues this fine Saturday? You’ve come to the right place, as we’re here with another installment of Any Woman’s Blues! If you’re talking about seminal blues guitarists—without reference to gender—today’s featured artist has to be mentioned. Both as a solo performer & in combination with her husband & music partner Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie left an extraordinary legacy of musicianship not only as a guitar player, but also as a singer.
It’s both interesting & disappointing that she’s not better known these days. She was a star in her own time who recorded extensively & whose records sold well. In those days of “race records,” Memphis Minnie was a star in the African-American community & much more popular than many of her contemporary blues artists who are much more well-known today. As guitarist & musical historian Del Rey points out in an excellent biographical article (which you can read here): “Memphis Minnie's music remained popular over two decades because it was lyrically and instrumentally in tune with the lives of Black Americans. It remains vital and influential today because of her inventive, rhythmic guitar playing and her songs, which capture people and events and bring them to life across the years.”
Memphis Minnie—born Elizabeth Douglas in Louisiana in 1897—was an anomaly. While it’s not clear how many women within the African-American community may have performed as guitarists in the pre-war period, Memphis Minnie was the one woman who became a big star doing so. She also was one of the first performers to adapt to the electric guitar (she was also one of the first blues guitarists to use a National resonator), & her embrace of the electric guitar from about the mid-point in her career on may very well have hurt her reputation among the folks who created the cultural blues mythos—namely the folk revivalists. We know that the folkies had an aversion to electric instruments & to showmanship. Elijah Wald in his excellent Escaping the Delta tells how Big Bill Broonzy was “marketed” by John Hammond as a “primitive blues singer,” when in fact within his own community, he was an accomplished showman & performer. When Broonzy played for his own community, he often played electric guitar—when playing folkie venues, it was acoustic all the way. Wald tells similar stories of other performers, including darkly humorous tales of how revivalists would try to tone down T-Bone Walker’s showmanship when he was playing folk clubs. Now when we consider that Langston Hughes described Minnie’s electric guitar playing as “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill,” we can see why her music may have been neglected during the folk revival (you can read the full text of Hughes' beautiful description of Memphis Minnie here).
In addition, as Del Rey writes in the article I mentioned earlier, Memphis Minnie simply is hard to pigeonhole in the categories of blues that have been created (largely by white music critics & white audiences). Rey writes: “Memphis Minnie doesn't fit the myth of the young, tragic, haunted blues man and she is too complex of a character to be easily marketed.” Fortunately, her music is available, & there are folks like Del Rey who are working to get Memphis Minnie the recognition she deserves.
Because Memphis Minnie is such an important figure, I’m offering three clips of her music. The first two are duets recorded with her husband Kansas Joe McCoy: “When the Levee Breaks” & “Pickin’ the Blues” (Memphis Minnie is playing slide on the latter). Memphis Minnie’s part on “When the Levee Breaks” is a masterpiece & it is probably her best known song (with McCoy on second guitar & vocal). Finally, “You Caught Me Wrong Again” features Minnie singing & playing some mean guitar.
Hope you enjoy this great music!