Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Women’s History: Memphis Minnie

Memphis-Minnie-book-1.jpgIn what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has, over time, been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy.

As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

A certain amount of projection, imagination, and accounting for what the Garons call “the listener’s own obsessions” aid in an understanding of Minnie’s blues, alternately concerned with cooking, hoodoo, love, sex, and the natural environment. A least that’s what I hear when she sings “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuits,” “Black Cat Blues,” and “When the Levee Breaks.” When Minnie sings, most of her lines go at least two or three ways, which in itself is not the revolutionary part; that she was a woman, saying and doing the things that she was in her time, contributes to the possibility she was also the greatest songster of them all, and yet, she remains the proverbial secret hiding in plain sight. Broonzy said as much in his 1955 book, and since then, the songs have supported the fact she’s a giant—just ask the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Chuck Berry who used them as springboards for their own. Is it possible that Minnie was so good—the world’s deepest blues player, conjurer, show person and poet—her story is believable only if it’s portrayed as myth?

Minnie’s way with words is largely the focus of the Garons’ study, a combination of interpretation and inquiry into Minnie’s blues and the deep subconscious well from which she drew inspiration. Crafting lines with far more layers of meaning than the kind of poetry which generally receives laurels, the authors emphasize Minnie’s contributions to blues form have barely begun to be unpacked. The Garons’ surrealist portrait of Minnie is a unique work of scholarship and an essential text toward understanding not only Minnie’s world and work, but the blues itself. Quoting her lyrics and others in blues tradition, the authors consistently and convincingly deliver the idea that a blues narrative is often less critical to interpretation than its lines and metaphors. Pieces of the dream are absorbed in a flash, by design, assimilated “on the fly, while dancing and drinking. Thus, there may be an analogy of how we listen to the blues and how surrealist poets listen to the unconscious.”

A captivating performer—agile, fast, and showy—Minnie was not only an accomplished guitarist but a songwriting original with verses double and triple-loaded with richness. She covered it all, though an area that Minnie mined singularly and deeply was the kitchen: Like the bluesmen’s perpetual and enduring references to liquor as poison, potion and magic elixir, Minnie used food as a way to sing of longing, desire and consummation but also of autonomy, liberation and ultimately transformation. (In addition to her ability to wipe the floor with her guitar competitors, Minnie was also known for her home cooking, especially her biscuits).

Automobiles and trains, allusions to the great outdoors, and the open road also serve as symbols of freedom in her songs, an ideal that still largely lived in the abstract for a rural black woman—and most all women—of Minnie’s generation. And though she might have done sung on the drudgery of domestic work, more often she chose not to: All these sides of Minnie, and what may also be perceived as her contradictions are explored throughout Woman With Guitar.

And you can’t tell me nothing, baby, that I never seen (2x)

And if you don’t believe me, follow me back to New Orleans

Among the new discoveries in this fresh edition of Woman With Guitar: Minnie, born Lizzie Douglas, was not from Algiers, Louisiana as was previously believed; rather, she is a Mississippian, like so many other legends of the blues, likely born in Tunica County around 1897. The eldest of 13, Lizzie or “Kid” as she was known, began to play guitar and banjo from age 10 or 11. She ran away from home to begin her career as a teenage guitarist on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few years. Returning to Beale Street, she fell in with friends in the Memphis Jug Band and was eventually discovered and signed to a Columbia recording contract in 1929. Her first sides, cut with “Kansas” Joe McCoy, were released that year and in 1930: Among the early songs, which remain her best-known were “Bumble Bee” and “When the Levee Breaks,” concerning the great Mississippi flood of 1927 (famously covered by Led Zeppelin).

Wild associations, side roads, and back doors are the Garons’ stock-in-trade, infusing their studies with an edge that the work by other scholars of classic American music forms often lacks; and yet, Woman With Guitar is no easy ride for casual readers who may need to delve deeper into America’s blues past to perceive the big picture.

When LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) described the makers of indigenous African American music as Blues People, he explored the idea that as musical innovators jazz and blues players could look misery in the face while never allowing despair or suffering the last word; music was their soul expression, a place where joy, pain, and liberation occupied the same truly free space, no matter one’s circumstances. Scholar Cornel West has furthered this idea in his ongoing dialogues suggesting, “These people are neither sentimental [nor] cynical; they’re blues people.” Blues people are willing to fight for what’s right and to be of service, “even when it did not look as if it would produce major consequences and effects.”

It’s unlikely Memphis Minnie was conscious of what she had to give or the ground she was breaking or taking—she was merely trying to survive America, the South, and escape her oppressors. Using her poetic and musical gifts, her expressions were samples of the life sustaining properties of song and the unconscious messages emitted when a poet puts pen to paper and gives voice to her soul. Given her circumstances, it’s miraculous that Minnie could read and write at all (any number of her contemporaries could not).

Paul Garon’s City Lights title, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, further defends the blues as a complex form, piled with as much meaning as so-called standard poetry has, if not more. Making the case that the blues is a “sustained poetic attack on the superstructure of an exploitative society,” he asserts the blues has made its own “psychopoetic” contribution to American music and social history. The same must be said for Minnie. Whether or not she is acknowledged by the masses, or the blueskeepers and tastemakers who reissue records is irrelevant.

“We have everything to gain if we interrogate our own level of consciousness about what we hear and how we hear it, in an effort to plumb the depths of responsibility toward the determination of the nature of the revolutionary poetic voice,” write the Garons. An offering to anyone interested in better understanding the blues and aiding in its survival, the Garons’ work has certainly made a difference in my own explorations, listenings and writings on blues. While there are no pat stories or explanations and few solutions to age old dilemmas on offer, Minnie’s story as a consummate artist against the odds will resonate with anyone who finds him or herself up against it in the here and now. Let Minnie’s life and work be a reminder that it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it that’s important.  May she continue to inspire and inform listeners for another 100 years or more.

Originally appeared in Blurt

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Filed under: Blues, Books, Poetry, Women in Rock, ,

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