For my new blog post I have decided to talk a bit about one of my personally favorite blues legends… a woman who has shaped blues history in many different ways, bringing a unique touch and a clear view of artistry through her music.
Let me introduce you to Memphis Minnie!
She is defined as “the queen of country blues”, but honestly I always felt the definition pretty reductive to describe how great she was… Many also said that she would play guitar “like a man”… well, being also an icon for feminism… I bet there were and still are quite a lot of men who wished to play guitar like her!
So… Who was Memphis Minnie?
She was born in Louisiana in the latest years of the XIX century and raised in the south of Memphis. Very early, at the age of 10 she proved to be a talent in playing both banjo and guitar and when she turned 13, her home became Memphis’ Beale Street. She quickly made a name for herself with the jug bands and string groups that played on the street and at Memphis’ Church Park. Music was running in her veins and she had to play it! At that time she was known as Kid Douglas, it was only a few years later, around the 1910s, that she changed her name into Memphis Minnie and started touring in the southern states.
Minnie was a unique talent: she did what the boys could do, and she did so while wearing a fancy dress, with full hair and lipstick on. She had everything: outstanding guitar skills, a strong voice, a wide repertoire with many original compositions, signature tracks and a glamorous, bawdy and tough stage presence at the same time.
She was above gender as well as genre and with her talent she spanned through decades, for years of undisputed career, which led her to move from country blues to electric blues in Chicago, becoming the first female guitarist to play electric urban blues.
Her style was raw, personal and edgy. Minnie was not following the mainstream, she was creating her own, to the point that she became one of the rare women of her era to gain prominence as an artist and as a guitarist.
In Chicago she performed in clubs, organized “Blue Monday” shows and formed a vaudeville troupe to tour theaters. She formally studied music and added some of the jazz and pop standards of the day to her repertoire. She joined the musicians union and bought a National electric archtop guitar, becoming part of that transitional generation between acoustic Delta blues and the electrified Chicago sound. But she was at heart a country blues singer/guitarist, and even though she was one of the greatest of all time, the changing tastes of the African-American audience found little room for what they considered a reminder of the grim life left behind in Mississippi.
In the latest years of her career she decided to move to small labels for her records, but for the artist that she was, she worked with some radio stations, to help, support, educate and promote eager and talented young blues artists.
Minnie overcame considerable odds to achieve success, battling both racism and sexism. She has been heralded as a champion of feminist independence and empowerment.
Her unique storytelling style of songwriting inspired as many men as women and her influence was particularly strong on female musicians, her disciples include her niece Lavern Baker as well as Saffire and virtually every other guitar-slinging woman since.
Her songs have been recorded by women such as Big Mama Thornton, Lucinda Williams, and Maria Muldaur, as well as by men, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Milton Brown and she was elected in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.
She has been music, she has been a fighter, she has been energy, boldness, power, fierceness and courage for all her life.
And to me, you never truly love blues until you get to meet her.
Garon, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie Blues
Newark, Feminist Blues: Choice and Independence in the Songs of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Billie Holiday
Memphis Music Hall of Fame, https://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/memphisminnie/
Blues Hall of Fame, https://blues.org/blues-hall-of-fame/