Graded on a Curve: Memphis Minnie,
Blues Classics

The appearance of female blues guitarists didn’t begin with Bonnie Raitt, as she’d be the first one to tell you. There were surely a few gender trailblazers in the genre, and the most successful was Memphis Minnie. But she was no mere curiosity, possessing great ability both as a singer and string-bender, recording in four decades as a solo performer and in fine collaboration. The Arhoolie Records subsidiary Blues Classics was the first label to give her work serious attention after the end of her commercial heyday, and it’s an effort that’s still worthy of commemoration.

It can be difficult to adequately express just how crucial the Arhoolie label of Chris Strachwitz was in exploring the sheer depth of the American Music of last century, particularly the ins and outs of the blues, a form that in its raw state had become a tough sell for more commercially minded companies, especially after the innovation of the long-playing record really got its hooks in.

Strachwitz’s now celebrated imprint combined the no-nonsense DIY spirit that’s commonly associated with the contemporary “indie” experience with the urge for documentation of styles of music with essences so pure and intense that they’ve always resided on the margins. That is, they were limited in their potential for widespread “pop” success, but absolutely crucial in providing insight into how creativity could flourish and give meaning to everyday life when concerns of monetary gain weren’t a central and often overriding issue.

For instance, Arhoolie was essentially founded to annotate the discovery of a then obscure Texas musician Mance Lipscomb, a singer and guitarist that had never previously recorded. Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster, the first in a series of enlightening volumes of his repertoire that retain their potency to this very day, set the course for the general vibe of a massive hunk of the subsequent Arhoolie discography.

Of course, it’s important to not turn Strachwitz or the musicians he released on his label into saintly figures. The man is ultimately just an intense devotee of music that he saw getting the short shrift in the consumer marketplace, and he decided to do something about it because he knew he wasn’t alone in his appreciation. And many of the artists he featured weren’t a bit averse to making a living through music, and one of the easiest ways to illustrate the fact is to draw attention to the entries in a fabulous Arhoolie sub-label that was provided with the handy title of Blues Classics.

By my count, there were thirty records released in the Blues Classics series between 1964 and 1984. A big hunk of those were compilations, often with a regional focus, and they shed light on all sorts of stylistically diverse recording activity, from jug bands and the country blues to the wild mania of the early electric stuff that exploded all over the place in the period following the second World War. Three volumes of religious music, two exploring Sanctified Singers and one detailing singing preachers in dialogue with their congregations even entered into the program’s fascinating equation.

Next to those comps could be found a bunch of entries devoted to single artists, most of them having been prominent in the decades prior to World War II. Names like John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Peetie Wheatstraw the Devil’s Son-in-Law (on a split-LP with Kokomo Arnold), Blind Boy Fuller, Tampa Red and even boogie-woogie piano maestro Albert Ammons served up portraits in sound of artists that not only experienced commercial success, but in some cases found music, at least for a certain period, to be their means of livelihood.

And the very first Blues Classics release illuminated not only a musician of substantial recording longevity, but also gave historical attention to a real rarity, a woman who not only sang the blues but also played guitar. It was easy enough for a budding blues fan living in the middle of the 1980s to locate recordings from early, often jazz-leaning vocalists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey or post-war figures such as Big Mama Thornton and Koko Taylor, but Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie promised something different.

She was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897. Her family moved to Walls, Mississippi when she was seven years old, and by age thirteen she’d run away from home to play for tips on Beale Street in Memphis, going under the name Kid Douglas. She did some travelling as a performer and even had a four-year stint with the Ringling Brothers Circus, but she spent most of her time developing her skills in the city she later incorporated into her name.

She was married three times, in each case to a bluesman; first Casey Bill Weldon, next Kansas Joe McCoy, and lastly Earnest Lawlar aka Little Son Joe. She recorded extensively, both on her own and in tandem with her second and third husbands, and became a powerhouse in the club setting, legendarily besting the great Big Bill Broonzy in a cutting contest. And she so impressed the poet Langston Hughes with her New Years Eve 1942 performance that he wrote a truly sublime live review in the January 9 1943 issue of the Chicago Defender.

Upon receiving my special-ordered copy of Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie, it delivered fifteen tracks of surprising versatility from a span of nearly twenty years. Smartly, the cuts were sequenced for maximum enjoyment rather than a strict chronological approach, and both sides are loaded with fine material and not a trace of filler.

The earliest selection, made in New York in June of 1929, is also one of a pair of inclusions from her extensive work with Kansas Joe, music that would later comprise the second volume of Memphis Minnie material for Blues Classics, Vol. 2 – Early Recordings with Kansas Joe McCoy.

“When the Levee Breaks” (yes, the song later modified as the last cut on side two of album number four from those brazen borrowers of the blues, Led Zeppelin) gives a good taste of what’s in store on that second volume, with McCoy singing and the duo’s guitars tangling together into a bout of spirited, slippery motion.

The record’s chronology then jumps ahead five years and locates another cut with McCoy, “You Got to Move Pt. 1”, recorded in Chicago in August of 1934. It again essays their expert combined guitar prowess, yet it contrasts substantially from the prior outing, being more slowly paced and rhythmic and finding the pair indulging in an assured vocal tradeoff detailing a troubled relationship that can’t help but forecast their breakup later that year.

Coming under the supervision of Lester Melrose not long after, Minnie was able to shift from a rurally-focused sound to one far more in keeping with the emerging sophistication of the blues. “Joe Louis Strut” from ’35 with Black Bob on piano and Bill Settles on bass, shows how quick this development was made.

A rollicking tribute to the great boxer, his victories an obvious source of inspiration and pride during the era of Segregation, “Joe Louis Strut” finds Minnie in a growling barrelhouse lather, exhorting her accompanists (“pick it Mr. Piano Picker!”) and culminating the tune by calling manically for the referee to please oh please stop the beating Louis was dishing out so handily. In the context of mid-‘30s blues it’s not really a blues at all, and it’s about as far from the down-home warmth of the stuff with McCoy as you can get, revealing just how adaptable was Memphis Minnie’s artistry.

“Man You Won’t Give Me No Money” from ’36, finding her going it alone save for some cat on woodblocks whose name is lost to the ages, is a jewel of tough, lithe blues minimalism, the guitar at times almost like a citified hotwiring of the sound commonly associated with Robert Johnson. Minnie’s voice is strong and lacking in the shrillness that dogs many an early female blues vocalist, and it again forms a rich union with her outstanding playing.

“Moonshine” and “It’s Hard to be Mistreated” are from the same year, and they find her with a more relaxed (and anonymous) piano/bass combo. There’s also some exquisitely rendered trumpet action (the horn blower an unfortunate cipher as well.) “Joe Louis Strut” was a torrid slice of topical lunacy, but these tracks ooze warmth, both benefiting greatly from their full-bodied sound.

This differs interestingly from ‘37’s “My Baby Don’t Want Me No More,” which finds her backed up by a trio of piano/ bass/ drums. And backed up is the operative term, for the vocals and guitar are the clear focal point of the song, the record’s sound reflective of Minnie’s rising notoriety. She was becoming the star of her most excellent show. From there the timeframe jumps to 1940 and four songs that mark the beginning of her collab with Little Son Joe.

This quartet of tunes places her at the forefront of the transitional decade for the Windy City Blues, and it foreshadows the LPs two best cuts, 1941’s “In My Girlish Days” and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues,” the later her largest hit, coming roughly a dozen years after she’d recorded for the first time. There’s obvious confidence and all-around maturity to all the ‘40s cuts presented here, and “Black Rat Swing” from ’41 (with Joe taking a nice vocal turn) and “I’m So Glad” (not the Skip James’ monster) from ’46 add bass to the dual guitar equation and round out a terrific portrait of a major exponent of the blues.

If a huge part of Memphis Minnie’s perseverance in the fledgling years of the recording industry was due to her smarts in mixing country grit and city slickness, it should also be noted just how quickly she made the move from the acoustic milieu to the stormy environs of electricity. Indeed, her use of amplification, in 1942 no less, was so striking to Hughes that it sent him into all sorts of poetic ruminations.

Her ability to embrace change and use it to her advantage found her recording for various labels well into the 1950s. She even knocked out a great side for Chess in ’52. However, it remained unreleased until the early-‘90s, when it finally appeared on the Chess Blues 4CD box set. Her commercial fortunes were basically over, and she and Lawlar returned to Memphis in 1957. Sadly, she suffered a stroke in 1960 that resulted in her being wheelchair bound for the remainder of her life, and Lawlar died in 1961. Memphis Minnie survived him by a dozen years, passing on August 6 of 1973.

On the initial pressing of Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie, the notes mention that she was receiving a royalty of 50 cents for each copy of the record sold. Most definitely admirable on Strachwitz’s part, but again, saintliness shouldn’t be attributed to the act; he was simply doing the right thing in an industry that’s always been plagued with rip-off artists.

Due to an early-‘70s repress, this volume was easier to obtain a decade later than many of the other albums from small labels like Biograph and Flyright that were devoted to the compiling of her work. And these days finding any Memphis Minnie on wax will take some digging and likely a hefty roll of spending bread as well.

That’s a drag, since the only single-CD set that really comes within spitting distance of giving this Blues Classics slab a run for its money is the Roots N’ Blues collection Hoodoo Lady 1933-1937, and that came out over 20 years ago. And it’s worth noting that Strachwitz beat Columbia to the punch by almost thirty years. If not a saint, he was no doubt a visionary.

Yes, Document has five volumes of her ’35 to ’41 work available, and while certainly welcome, the gesture is overwhelmingly representative of that label’s scholarly tack. Don’t know about you, but I only feel like a scholar sometimes. I’m in the mood for digging into a thoughtfully concise dose of the blues a whole lot more.

And the Blues Classics discography is tidy enough that it would make one doozy of a reissue program, with the LPs brought out in the order of their original release every few months or so, the light at the end of the tunnel that is Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Houston’s King of the Blues – Historic Recordings 1952-1953 getting bigger with each release. Cool thing is, if this were to somehow transpire it would begin all over again with Memphis Minnie. She’s as deserving of the honor now as she was almost fifty years ago.


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