Categorically speaking, the blues can be divided into urban and rural styles. This is an important distinction when discussing female blues singers in the early days of blues recordings, starting in the 1920s. Performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey belonged to the former category. They sold lots of records as they were based in large cities, near the centers of musical production. Lesser known black female recording artists such as Katie Crippen, Edith Wilson, and Esther Bigeou did not get as many headlines, but many were just as talented. Blues historians tend to focus on Mississippi and Texas, but fewer mention the Piedmont area of the East Coast or the state of Louisiana. One great female singer, who migrated from Louisiana to Tennessee and on to Chicago, made a name for herself there with exceptional guitar picking and a loud but melodic singing touch.
Her name was Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas (1897-1973) and she was an American blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter who was active from the 1920s to the 1950s. Despite her nickname, Douglas was born in the Algiers section of New Orleans. She was the only female blues artist considered a match to male contemporaries as both a singer and as an instrumentalist. “As blues and jazz gradually made their way into mainstream American culture during the swing era, the singer and guitarist known as Memphis Minnie stands out as a trailblazer. One of the first musicians in any genre to embrace the electric guitar, Memphis Minnie helped lead the transition from acoustic rural blues to electrified urban blues in the early 1940s,” reports the website 64 Parishes.
It is true that Minnie started her career in Memphis, but her nickname is misleading because the bulk of her career occurred in Chicago. In terms of record sales during the 1930s, she ranked second behind the boisterous Bessie Smith. Minnie was different from Bessie in that she wrote her own songs and played the guitar. She was much less flamboyant and controversial, thus she caught the eye of the media much less. As one observer put it, “The thin, light-skinned, bespeckled performer looked more like a schoolteacher than a blues singer.”
Minnie’s sparkling career never got as much publicity as many other blues players, probably because she had a less than a tragic life. She didn’t die at a young age like Robert Johnson or perish in a car accident as did Bessie Smith. An old adage says: “We respect people for their abilities, but love them for their weaknesses.” Instead of displaying frailties, Minnie was a woman in charge of her career, which ironically made her less interesting to historians and to the media. She was one of the most famous black women singers you have never heard about.
Langston Hughes, often called the Poet of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, saw Minnie perform at a New Year’s Party in December 1942 at Chicago’s 230 Club. There was Minnie sitting on top of a refrigerator full of beer, belting out blues songs about Louisiana over the roar of the crowd. “Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill,” Langston later wrote in the newspaper for blacks called The Chicago Defender.
Memphis Minnie recorded over 100 songs, most of which she had written herself. Among her many hits were “Bumble Bee” (her first), “Me and My Chauffer Blues”, “Hoodo Lady” and “When the Levees Broke.” The last-named 1929 song (with Kansas Joe McCoy, her husband) was actually about the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, but the tune prompted a revival of her music following Katrina, a large Category 5 Atlantic hurricane which caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage to New Orleans in August 2005. The song’s lyrics start:
“If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break
If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break
And the water gonna come, you’ll have no place to stay
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moaned
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moaned
Thinkin’ bout my baby and happy home
If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break.”
Minnie played the guitar like a man. She once even beat the great Big Bill Broonzy in a picking contest. Her title “Queen of the Country Blues” was no hype. “Minnie did everything the boys could do, and she did it in a fancy gown with full hair and makeup. She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough,” states an article in memphismusichalloffame.com.
More unfortunate than tragic, Memphis Minnie died broke, sick and forgotten, passing away in a nursing home in 1973. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Memphis’ New Hope Cemetery. Minnie laid in that unmarked grave for twenty-three years until Bonnie Raitt bought a headstone for her last resting place in 1996. In 1980, Memphis Minnie was one of the first 20 artists inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe perform “When the Levees Broke”