Memphis Minnie: Her Story

Memphis Minnie by Del Rey

Guitar Queen. Hoodoo Lady. Master finger-style guitar player. Elizabeth “Kid” Douglas, known as Memphis Minnie was an intricate guitarist, an astute songwriter and a stylistic innovator. Her work (over 200 recordings) leads the way through the development of blues guitar playing, starting with her first recordings in 1929.  There have been a number of re-releases of her work, and her songs, especially Chauffeur Blues, When The Levee Breaks, Black Rat Swing and What’s The Matter With The Mill? are repertoire perennials. A full-length biography, “Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues” by Paul and Beth Garon was published by DaCapo press in 1998 with a 2nd edition in 2014. Yet she remains comparatively unknown and under-studied in relation to her influence and importance to the development of blues music and guitar playing. Why has this musician , with her enormous body of recordings, who was well-loved by the Black blues audiences of the ’30s and ’40s been comparatively ignored by later, whiter audiences?

Perhaps it’s because 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. She shaped a life very different from the limited possibilities offered to the women of her time. She lived a long life, was at her best in middle age, and would spit tobacco wearing a chiffon ball gown. 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.

Starting in 1929, her records lead us through twenty years of recorded blues and illustrate her life, as she moved from the rural South to urban Chicago.   Musically there were three basic phases to her style: the duet years with Kansas Joe, the “Melrose” band sound of the late thirties and early forties, and her later electric playing. She was always a finger picker, and played in Spanish (DGDGBD) and standard tunings, often using a capo. For guitar players, the first part of her career is definitely the most inspiring, as her inventive variations make masterpieces of tunes like “When The Levee Breaks”(1930) or “Let’s Go To Town”(1931). In terms of her influence on the development of blues, she was an important player in the Chicago clubs during the ’40s when musicians like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rodgers and Johnny Shines, were coming up.

African, European and Indigenous traditions had begun to coalesce into the blues in the South much earlier than the ’20s, but our perception of history is usually based on recorded history: what gets recorded, written about and incorporated into our accepted common memory. In our society, what is deemed important is often what has commercial value, and that is precisely what pushes blues off the front porch and onto 78s. in the ’20s when record companies first perceived a market for the style.   The commercial success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920, alerted record companies to the existence of black record buyers. The companies began to seek out and record other singers in the same vaudevillian genre. Theatrical, glamorous blues queens dominated the first decade of recorded blues. Primarily an urban, piano based music, it was perfect for the speciously prosperous “Jazz Age” atmosphere of the twenties, during which the music of Black Americans became increasingly influential to the mainstream.

As the realities of boom and bust economics became universal after the stock market crash of 1929, record companies began to seek out rural, guitar based music. Perhaps it was cheaper to record a country boy’s guitar than an established vaudeville professional. Perhaps the glamour of beaded and tiaraed blues royalty seemed wrong for a time of soup kitchens and extensive poverty, although blues listeners surely always lived in poverty. It is difficult to tell whether audiences demanded different music, or if they bought what was promoted and available. In any case, in 1929 Elizabeth Douglas, professionally known as Memphis Minnie, made her debut on record.

Memphis Minnie (known to her family as “Kid”) was born June 3, 1897, in Algiers Louisiana, the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. She grew up in Walls Mississippi, about 20 miles from Memphis on Route 61, in a time before rural electrification and national media created a mass culture. Music (like most things) was still homemade: for entertainment, people threw parties–suppers where roast shoat, custard pies and candy sticks dipped in corn whiskey got worked off dancing the “shoofly”, the “scratch” and the “shimmy-she-wobble.” Minnie started playing banjo when she was seven years old, and was influenced by the string bands which played for dancers who partied all night and hit the fields at dawn. She got her first guitar at age ten or 11.   The wretchedness of hitting the fields at dawn led some to try life with “the starvation box”, as Roosevelt Sykes called the guitar. A musicians’ life was an escape from endless labor, looked on with both admiration and resentment by the field hands and workers in the audience. The official job prospects for black women were limited to domestic service and farm work both of which demanded grueling labor and subservience for low pay. Memphis Minnie was never interested in physical labor and she began to play on the streets of Memphis and the towns surrounding Walls soon after getting her first guitar.

In 1907 a blues musician played in all kinds of places: house parties, barrel houses, work camps, traveling shows. It’s hard to imagine how prevalent live music was before the advent of consumer electronics. Anywhere you hear canned music now would probably have had a live musician–well, maybe not elevators. Sometimes a blues musician got paid with an apple or a can of sardines, sometimes she made as much as a hundred dollars. The traveling musician was often a lonely stranger, an outsider who might not know the local situation, and musicians often teamed up. One of Memphis Minnie’s first musical partnerships was with Willie Brown, who is is better known for his association with Charlie Patton. Brown provided the solid rhythm and bass lines she seemed to require from all her men. She and Brown began playing together around 1915 in the resort town of Bedford Mississippi, where tourists could take a ferryboat trip around nearby Lake Cormorant. Minnie and Brown would get aboard and entertain the primarily white pleasure seekers, once debarking at Biggs Arkansas with $119 in tips. They mixed blues with pop tunes, her favorite cover being “What Makes You Do Me Like You Do Do Do”. She also played for dances and store promotions. In guitarist Willie Moore’s recollection, (reported in Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s King of the Delta Blues; The Life and Music of Charlie Patton, 1988 Rock Chapel Press) Minnie was the better guitarist, —“She was a guitar king”—-he said—- although Brown was better known.

Minnie is rumored to have joined a Ringling Bros. circus in Clarksdale around 1917. There were traveling shows of all kinds, from lowdown to grand, but they all included comedy, dancers and musicians of every type from jug bands to elegant pianists. Associating with circus and vaudeville performers must have been a step up for a street musician, and probably helped Minnie make her music more of an act.

Minnie settled Memphis in the early ’20s. Beale Street was at this time an important bit of pavement, a place where segregation forced dentists and church ladies to mix with gamblers and whores, creating quite a lively atmosphere.

Minnie worked the streets and parks with Jed Davenport’s Beale Street Jug Band, and her guitar playing was influenced by the popular jug band musician Frank Stokes, who’s guitar duets with Dan Sane are very similar to Minnie’s early style.

  By 1929, Douglas had married another guitar-player, Joe McCoy, who was a good singer and guitarist, but reputedly a jealous fellow. One photo of the two has Minnie in an florid, drop-waisted day dress, with straightened flapper hair, looking distinctly unsteady on her feet as she grabs hold of a grim-faced Joe’s padded shoulder. They were playing together in a Beale street barbershop when a scout from Columbia offered to record them in New York. Their first session was on June 18, 1929, two weeks after Minnie’s 32nd birthday. The silly yet haunting “Bumble Bee Blues” became the popular song from that session– so popular that Minnie recorded several different versions of it for different labels.   Columbia was responsible for bestowing their geographical monikers: Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe. Minnie used the name both publicly and privately, although her family still called her Kid.

Minnie and Joe began a steady series of recording dates in New York, and Memphis, first for Columbia, later for Vocalion, Decca, Okeh and Bluebird. Kansas Joe,and Minnie were guitarists of equal ability, and the interplay of their instruments is like a great conversation: with both of them switching between treble and bass. The back-up parts are as interesting as the melody parts, especially on tunes like “When the Levee Breaks”, recorded in 1929, in Spanish tuning capoed to Bb (the third fret) or “Crazy Crying Blues” from 1931, also in Spanish, capoed to C# (the sixth fret). It’s rural party music, with doubling of parts helping punch the sound through in a loud environment in the pre-electric age.

Minnie was quick to embrace the latest technologies in order to be heard above the crowds She was one of the first blues players to use a National in 1929, and to play an electric wood body National and various electric guitars in the ’40s and ’50s.

Minnie’s fame began to spread northward by word of mouth and records. Apparently people in Chicago, who had never actually seen her play, were skeptical–so far no women instrumentalists had become prominent on the tough country blues circuit, although some (like guitarist Mattie Delaney), made a brief, tantalizing appearance, then disappeared. Minnie’s arrival in Chicago precipitated a showdown with the reigning King, Big Bill Broonzy.1.   In 1933, when Big Bill Broonzy was very popular in Chicago, a blues contest between him and Memphis Minnie took place in a night club. As Broonzy tells the story, in his autobiography Big Bill Blues, (Cassell and Co.London 1956) a jury of fellow musicians awarded Minnie the prize of a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin for her performance of “Chauffeur Blues” and “Looking the World Over”. Bill grabbed half the prize (the bottle of whiskey) and took it off to drink under a table. Two of the judges, John Estes and Richard Jones hoisted the victorious Minnie on their shoulders while Kansas Joe remarked sourly “Put her down. She can walk”. Broonzy and Minnie became good friends, and played together locally and on the road.

Joe and Minnie based themselves in Chicago throughout the early ’30s, playing clubs like the DeLisa and the Music Box, recording both together and separately. Their marriage and musical partnership fell apart in the mid-thirties, around the same time Minnie became increasingly featured as a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter.

Minnie toured a great deal in the ’30s, mostly in the south. It was during this period that Bob Wills and some of his Texas Playboys saw her playing in Texas; they would later make her “What’s The Matter With The Mill?” a part of their repetoire.

Some of her mid-thirties recordings incorporate piano, drums and a few horn players and after 1935, she joined the group of musicians who worked regularly for Lester Melrose, a producer and talent scout who supplied blues artists for a number of labels. He standardized the sound of his blues offerings, using musicians like Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Thomas Dorsey to back up different artists. In the studio Minnie worked with pianist Black Bob, drummer Fred Williams and other instrumentalists, from the occasional trumpeter to lap-steel and mandolin. During this period Minnie began playing much less; the guitar no longer combines bass, treble and rhythm parts, leaving that to the other instruments, and instead starts to sound more like what we think of as blues today, with soulful bends and well-placed twangs on songs like the swing influenced “Good Morning”(1936) and “Hot Stuff”(1937), both of which she played in standard tuning.

In 1939 she married Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars, a Memphis based guitarist who was her partner for the next 23 years. Her recordings with Son Joe are in duet style, with piano, bass or drums added on some sessions. Although Son’s playing has an impelling pulse and solidness their instrumental interplay is less intricate than what Minnie and Kansas Joe recorded. Some of Minnie’s best lyrics come from this period, like those in the autobiographical “In My Girlish Days”, (1941)which she played in G in standard tuning. In the same session Son Joe sang “Black Rat Swing”, and sounded so much like Minnie he must have borrowed her chewing tobacco. Minnie’s fantastically vituperative vocal delivery on some songs may be due in part to having a cheek full of Copenhagen. She was known to spit mid-song without losing a beat.

Their sessions in May and December of 1941 fused her more urban sound, (for example her vocal delivery on “Nothin’ In Ramblin”), with Son Joe’s back-up style, which combined big chords with an insistent beat to create a chunky swing feel. He seems to play with a flatpick, mostly in standard tuning. The forties treated Minnie and Son Joe well and they performed both together and separately depending on finances, (they could make more money playing separate gigs). Minnie, presided over Blue Monday parties at Ruby Lee Gatewood’s Tavern playing an electrified National arch top in front of a band that included bass and drums. The poet Langston Hughes saw her perform New Year’s Eve 1942, at the 230 Club, and was thoroughly overwhelmed by her “scientific” (i.e. loud) sound. He described the sound of her electric guitar as ” a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill”. Clearly she had by that time embraced the next phase of the blues.

The poet Langston Hughes was overwhelmed by Minnie's "rolling mill" sounds...

The poet Langston Hughes was overwhelmed by Minnie’s “rolling mill” sounds. Courtesy Vintage Books USA.

As a working musician, Minnie’s guitar style evolved partly in response to the kind of places she played and the people for whom she played. Her recorded output is not necessarily the same as her live set. Record companies are remarkably mono-thematic about marketing, and Minnie, like many other blues musicians, played jazz and swing tunes as well, although there are only hints of this in her 200 recorded sides. Paul and Beth Garon include a fascinating photo of Minnie’s set list in “Woman with Guitar”, that includes songs like “Marie”, “Woody Woodpecker”, Lady Be Good”, “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons” and “How High The Moon.”  Son Joe and Minnie played until their health broke down. Even though sales of their recordings slowed down by the end of the forties, their audience remained available to them in the clubs. Styles were shifting toward jump blues bands and by the mid ’50s the record industry had changed irrevocably with the fabrication of rock and roll. The major labels pulled out of the blues market, and Minnie’s last recordings were for Regal in 1949. The best tune of that session, in which Minnie generally sounded tired and overwrought, is “Downhome Girl” which is sung with great feeling but too many notes on the wrong frets. These sides were never issued by Regal but can now be heard on the Biograph CD Memphis Minnie: Early Rhythm and Blues 1949.

In 1957 Minnie had an incapacitating heart attack, and Son Joe became too ill to perform. They returned to Memphis where Minnie’s sister Daisy took care of them. After Son Joe’s death in 1962 Minnie lived in a nursing home until she died on August 6,1973, at the age of 76.

Although Memphis Minnie is gone, her music is still full of life, and her influence can be heard in the music of the many Chicago blues players who came up during her reign in the thirties and forties. Her guitar playing embodies the best of blues: it takes a simple form and makes each iteration fresh and inventive. Many of her hits are still standards in more than one genre, like “What’s The Matter With The Mill?”, “Chauffeur Blues” or “When The Levee Breaks”. Her recordings were reissued by Chris Strachwitz on Blues Classics in the late sixties, and had a profound influence on several young musicians, particularly the late guitarist JoAnn Kelly, and Maria Muldaur who still sings Minnie’s songs today. Suzy Thompson, who plays blues fiddle and guitar is another current interpreter of Minnie’s songs.

Minnie’s voice is rarely heard, even today: it is the voice of an independent, childless woman, an artist who never puts up with abuse, and who managed to find pleasure while living through tough times.

by Del Rey copyright 1997 Hobemian Records

(a version of this article was originally published in Acoustic Guitar Magazine 1997)

Sources not cited in the text are from record labels and personal conversations with musicians. Photo courtesy the Frank Driggs collection. Langston Hughes quote courtesy Vintage Books USA.

Visit Del Rey and Suzy Thompson for modern interpretations.

To buy Minnie’s original recordings check Arhoolie, and Document .

Many of Minnie’s lyrics gathered here and here.

If you are interested in Minnie’s guitar style, I’ve made a Homespun video on how to figure her guitar parts in the various keys she plays in. There are also additional hints as to positions, and links to sound recordings on the Playing Memphis Minnie page. Have fun!