Memphis Minnie: Straddling the Blues

memphis-minnie

Today is the birthday of Memphis Minnie (Lizzie “Kid” Douglas a.k.a. Minnie Lawlers, 1897-1973).

To me, she is one of the most incredible figures in blues history, on account of she straddles so many different KINDS of blues (yes, I pretty much meant that verb). Her recording career started in 1929. What is interesting to me is that she entered the field when it was dominated by female singers (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith) and some of her records have that classic blues orchestration (largely piano driven). BUT (here’s where she’s almost entirely unique) she’s even better known for playing the rural style of Delta country blues; she didn’t just sing but she played guitar, and that was a field entirely dominated by men (guys like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House etc etc). Furthermore, her career went long enough that she also entered the era of amplification and, the more urban big city Chicago blues of the sort we associate with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf etc etc that eventually led to rock ‘n’ roll). She is a bridge to everywhere.

Memphis Minnie grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana, started playing the banjo at age 10, and ran off to play guitar of Beale Street sidewalks in Memphis by age 13. (She also turned tricks to support herself — and her rough lifestyle shows up in her songs, whoo boy, did she record some dirty and rough and funny songs). She is also said to have toured for four years with Ringling Brothers Circus (1916-1920) as a musician.

To give you an idea of the many sounds and eras she spanned…

“Bumble Bee”, 1930 (country blues)

“Down in the Alley”, 1937 (classic blues)

“Night Watchman Blues”, 1949 (Chicago blues)

To find out more about show biz past and present consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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