Tag Archives: Mamie Smith

on alligators and bears

Ever since Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, the recording industry for blues music expanded and has been the pathway to fame for most blues artists. Since commercial radio began to develop during the same period, such musicians depended on cutting a record and getting it played on the radio to get their names known regionally and, more importantly, nationally. Yes, I know that many blues historians will argue that blues recordings started years before Mamie’s breakthrough recording, but that is not the point here.

Now, digital recording and the Internet have opened up a large international audience, much to the delight of blues music lovers. Traditional recording agencies still play a large role but most Americans still do not realize that 70% of all blues recordings are sold in Europe. Other blues historians may argue that is not the point either. Enough. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these blues music recording companies.

Today, the Chicago-based Alligator Records (https://www.alligator.com) is the largest independent blues label in the world, and has been repeatedly honored for its achievements. Three Alligator recordings have won Grammy Awards, and 41 titles have been nominated. The label and its artists have received well over 100 Blues Music Awards and more than 70 Living Blues Awards. But even with all of the accolades, Alligator Records never rests on its laurels.

The Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection clearly lays out Alligator’s wide-ranging, forward-looking vision with tracks from newer voices — Shemekia Copeland, Selwyn Birchwood and Toronzo Cannon, to name a few. Together, the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection presents a comprehensive portrait of the label’s singular, rooted, soul-stirring American music.

According to owner Bruce Iglauer, “Alligator should be the label that’s exposing the next generation of blues artists and bringing their music to the next generation of blues fans. I want to keep bringing blues and roots music to new fans and getting them as excited about the music as I am. I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same.”

Europe has long been receptive to the traditional sound of Southern blues music.  Blues-infused rock groups from England, which were greatly influenced by the historic blues style, like the Rolling Stones or the Animals, also brought new energy to an outdated, but still powerful, style. However, the blues as we once knew it may be dying a second death. Perhaps the only new trend that can save it (again) is internationalization. Although they don’t always know the history of the songs they are singing, blues artists from all over the world are tapping into the blues style. Blues pubs are popping up from Tokyo to Berlin, from Toronto to Sao Paulo and beyond.

Iranian-born bluesman Big Harp George says: “One of the things that is really exciting in the blues world right now, here in the [San Francisco] Bay Area maybe more than anywhere, is the internationalization of the style. One of my songs is ‘Hey Jaleh!,’ which happens to be the name of my Iranian-born wife. I have had blues musicians tell me I should change that name, that no one has ever sung a blues song to an Iranian woman.”

But is it really that strange that people from other cultures and other nations can “get” the American blues? No matter your nationality or cultural upbringing, feelings are feelings and they can be expressed in song. George was educated in Beirut, but did not need to work in a cotton field in the American South to understand where the blues is coming from. “I have not picked cotton,” George points out. “I have not worked in a steel mill. By comparison to many blues musicians, I’ve had a very privileged life. But that does not mean I can’t tap emotions and contexts that are consistent with the blues tradition, and that are genuine to my own experience.”

Germany seems to be the main engine for blues activity and recording sales in Europe. It is home to Bear Family Records (https://www.bear-family.com/) and its huge collection of blues recordings and other paraphernalia concerning the American blues and other musical genres. Formed in 1975, it is the gold standard for the reissuing of classic blues recordings and is a large contributor to the sale of blues recordings worldwide. The label issues lavishly designed box sets of blues and other American roots music, with book-length liner notes.

Founded by collector Richard Weize, Bear Family Records started with the double LP “Going Back to Dixie” by Bill Clifton. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings in CD format in small amounts. Historically, their material has had only limited availability in the U.S., stocked at Ernest Tubb Record Shop and through mail order sources. Many of their box sets are now available through Amazon Marketplace, however. 

Big Harp George sings “Build Myself an App”

queen of country blues

Memphis Minnie

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”