The Legacy of Memphis Minnie
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about. Sometimes he writes about other things.
“The poet Langston Hughes described the sound of her electric guitar as ‘a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.’”
Electric welders plus a rolling mill?
Sounds like a badge of honor for any guitar slinger I know, especially from the post-Jimmy Page/Eric Clapton era.
In this case, however, the reviewer was describing the raucous blues played by a middle-aged woman at a New Year]’ Eve Party in 1945.
Lizzie Douglas was born June 3. 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana.
The family relocated to Walls, Mississippi, in 1905. That same year she would receive, as a Christmas present, her first guitar.
Quickly mastering some basic chords and patterns, she began performing on street corners as “Kid” Douglas. At the age of thirteen, she ran away to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennesee, geographically less than twenty miles away, but culturally the center of an entirely different universe.
For the next few years, The Kid would return home when she ran out of money, and then take off again. She traveled with the circus for a while, but eventually ending up back on Beale Street.
“Struttin’ That Stuff”
The tamed-down, tourist-friendly Beale Street of today bears little resemblance to the street of the same name that jumped around the clock in the Twenties and Thirties.
The primitive, down-home music that Lizzie heard on street corners and at social gatherings was itself, experiencing an adolescent growth spurt. In addition, Beale Street was the center of a new music and entire cultural revolution for black folks in the South.
A trumpet player from Clarksdale, Mississippi, named W.C. Handy had written “The Beale Street Blues,” and musicians from all over were flocking to Memphis to play in the clubs up and down the block.
The country blues of the field and plantation, played mainly by solo guitarists, still heard on the street corners, was now performed in the swank nightclubs played by duos, small combos, and even big bands. Sophisticated arrangements written by “educated” musicians helped to smooth some of its rough edges, and increase its popularity.
Although the segregation and discrimination of the rural South was still rigidly enforced in the big city of Memphis, Beale Street served as sort of a “free zone” for blacks in the early twentieth century.
Along with the music, other forms of entertainment were also available and affordable. Pharmacies sold cocaine over the counter, and one block over from Beale, the Red Light District of Gayoso Avenue provided other forms of entertainment.
In those early days, playing music alone did not quite pay her bills and Ms. Douglas never denied having supplemented her income by occasionally working over on Gayoso.
It must have been a shock to a young country girl, but she never lost sight of her dream. Some of those early dues she paid would later resurface in her music. Songs like “Bad Luck Woman,” reveal a dry and subtle sense of humor requiring repeated listenings to appreciate, while “Hoodoo Lady” pokes fun at the real-life problems one encounters when crossing the path of those blessed with “extraordinary” powers.
Along with her sophisticated lyrics, Minnie was also becoming legendary for her skills as a guitarist and arranger, which led to a recording contract in the late 1920s.
“What’s The Matter with the Mill?”
During the Thirties and Forties, Minnie would have her greatest successes with her own recordings, and many of her songs from this period would become hits for other artists in several different styles.
“What’s The Matter With The Mill?” a not-so-subtle look at impotence, would be “covered” by everyone from blues singer Muddy Waters to western swing legend Bob Wills, and a 1929 song about a natural disaster would later later become another popular hit.
Minnie would record and play shows well into fifties, even though her style of blues would fade in popularity during the early years of rock ‘n” roll.
In 1960, Minnie suffered a debilitating stroke and moved to the Jefferson Nursing Home in Memphis, where she died of a second stroke on August 6, 1973.
Thanks to the blues revivals of the 1960s and ’70s, her music wasn’t completely lost and, in fact, would travel halfway around the world and impact numerous artists of a group of young British musicians nearly forty years later. In 1971, Led Zeppelin would hit the jackpot with their version of “When The Levee Breaks,” a song written and recorded by Memphis Minnie and her husband Joe McCoy in 1929.
At a ceremony in 1996, twenty-three years after her death, attended by thirty-five family members, including sisters, nieces (among them, R&B legend Laverne Baker), and several nephews, Bonnie Raitt placed a headstone on the unmarked grave of Lizzie “Kid” Douglas Lawlers a.k.a. Memphis Minnie.
The inscription on the back of it reads:
“The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”
As one of the first women, black or white, to earn the respect of her peers as a top-notch musician, composer, and all-around professional in the male-dominated music business, Memphis Minnie opened a lot of doors for future generations. Everyone from Koko Taylor to Ms. Raitt, to my friend Ann Rabson has sung her praises, and openly acknowledged a huge debt to her, not only as an artist who wrote and sang damn fine songs, but also as a role model for young women with dreams and the determination to follow them.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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