Illustration by Chris Osborne. ChrisOArt.com
Blues fan or not, by now you’ve probably become familiar with the story of the haunted, solitary figure who arranges to meet the devil in the middle of the night at “the crossroads,” where he trades his tortured, artistic soul for the ability to play the blues like no one ever has before. It’s a vivid and compelling story that, over the last half of the twentieth century, has essentially become the “founding myth” of blues history. According to that version, the earliest blues developed in the cotton fields of Mississippi, producing central figures like the well-known acoustic guitarist and composer Robert Johnson, as well as masters of the electrified Chicago blues like McKinley Morganfield, better known by his rural nickname “Muddy Waters,” and Chester Arthur Burnett, with the colorful stage-name “Howlin’ Wolf.”
But now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new, more inclusive version of blues history has begun to emerge—one that takes into account an earlier tradition of female blues singers who plied their trade initially on the vaudeville circuit of the early twentieth century—as well as the likelihood that the deeper, more authentic roots of the blues likely sprung from more urban settings—in particular, from the music-drenched streets and saloons of New Orleans.
Growing Up in New Orleans with the Blues
Easily the most prominent, and most overlooked, of the early blueswomen who might benefit from this shift in understanding is Lizzie Douglas, a New Orleans native who recorded and performed under the stage name Memphis Minnie; the name was crafted for her by record company execs just as she was rising to the top of the 1920s Memphis blues scene. On author Elijah Wald’s recently tabulated Top Ten list of the most-recorded blues artists between 1920 and the early 1940s, the work of the best-known early blueswoman Bessie Smith clocks in at sixth place, with 160 selections recorded between 1923 and 1933. Memphis Minnie ranks eighth, with 158 selections recorded between 1929 and 1941.
As Memphis Minnie’s story is slowly brought to light, a remarkable woman is revealed, fiercely independent and powerfully talented. She began her career as an important pioneer in recording guitar-based blues; toward the end, she most likely became the first musician of either gender to master not only the electric guitar but also the fully integrated sound of the four-piece electric blues band (with drums, bass, and piano).
Despite her Memphis nickname, Lizzie Douglas’ early childhood was spent in New Orleans, immersed in one of the most music-rich urban landscapes in the world. Born on June 3, 1897 to itinerant sharecroppers Abe and Gertrude Douglas, “Kid,” as she was known to her family and close associates, was the eldest of thirteen children. She spent the first seven years of her life in the Algiers section of New Orleans, a self-contained neighborhood located directly across the Mississippi from New Orleans’ busy riverfront area. Today Algiers is a relatively isolated and residential adjunct to New Orleans city proper connected by a multi-traffic-lane bridge and a single ferry line. But when Lizzie Douglas was born, Algiers was a major industrial hub inhabited by shipbuilding and repair yards, stockyards and slaughterhouses, and a sprawling rail yard that occupied the equivalent of twenty-two city blocks inland from the riverfront. Like other turn-of-the-twentieth century industrial hubs that contained animal processing operations, Algiers attracted hundreds of immigrant workers and their families, including those with German, Irish, Sicilian, and African-American heritage.
She began her career as an important pioneer in recording guitar-based blues; toward the end, she most likely became the first musician of either gender to master not only the electric guitar but also the fully integrated sound of the four-piece electric blues band (with drums, bass, and piano).
To provide entertainment for these hard-working laborers and their families, turn-of-the-century Algiers boasted more than forty bars and dance halls, creating a rich environment that produced a wealth of well-known bandleaders and musicians. While we’ll never now for sure the details of Lizzie Douglas’ first seven years—after which her parents moved to a small farming town on the outskirts of Memphis—we can imagine that this voracious and strong-headed young child was significantly impressed by music, New Orleans blues especially.
We know that for her first Christmas away from the city, Lizzie insisted her parents buy her a guitar, which she soon put to good use, traveling by herself even before adolescence to learn from performers on Memphis’ Beale Street. And we know that at some point in her life, she was profoundly influenced by the dominant blueswoman of the pre-recording-industry blues era, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, later referred to as “The Mother of the Blues” and recognized as a mentor to Bessie Smith. We also know that Ma Rainey, who worked both the traveling tent show and vaudeville circuits, frequently wintered in New Orleans beginning in the early 1900s, hanging out with all the top jazz cats early enough that young Lizzie may have seen her perform or, at least, heard her mentioned with respect and admiration by local musicians.
A Twentieth Century Blues Pioneer Lost to Obscurity
In any case, Ma Rainey became a guiding role model for Lizzie Douglas somewhere along the line. Ma Rainey dressed to impress, for example—performing most frequently in sequined dresses adorned with a long triple-string necklace of attached gold coins; in tribute, the grown-up Memphis Minnie faithfully made both her jangling bracelet of enclosed silver dollars and a prominent ring depicting a pair of rolling dice signature items of her own stage wardrobe. And when Ma Rainey breathed her last breath in 1939, Memphis Minnie, now an established recording star, immediately recorded and released her own musical tribute to the musical pioneer who may well have been the first truly dominant blueswoman.
Throughout her long musical career, Memphis Minnie maintained a kind of independence extremely rare for women in those days. Early on, she established a pattern of finding male partners—in the end a total of four—who always played a support role in her music, providing rhythmic accompaniment that freed the guitar virtuoso to exercise her gifts fully and freely. And she waited until fairly late in her life, at the age of thirty-two when she’d mastered her own style and honed her own musical vision, before beginning a recording career that lasted well into the early 1950s, by which time she’d eventually recorded more than two hundred individual selections.
Having fallen out of style by the mid-1950s, Minnie retired to Memphis with her last partner and spouse; but it wasn’t long before she became gravely ill and her spouse passed away. Even though she had once dominated the blues sales charts, she was now penniless and became too poor to afford nursing home care, living in almost complete obscurity before finally giving up the ghost in 1973 at the age of seventy-six. But those in the know, and especially musicians, kept her memory alive by reviving songs she’d written and made famous, including the Jefferson Airplane’s mid-1960s recording of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and Led Zeppelin’s 1971 version of “When the Levee Breaks.” In 1980, when a Blues Hall of Fame was established in Memphis, only two women were included in the first twenty inductees, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. But it wasn’t until 1996 that blues and pop musician Bonnie Raitt made sure her final resting place would be remembered with a proper headstone.
It wasn’t until last year that a formal tribute album to the legacy of Memphis Minnie was released by Maria Muldaur, best known for her 1970s pop hit “Midnight at the Oasis,” but a lifelong devotee of both jazz and blues. First Came Memphis Minnie is a star-studded affair with guest appearances by Raitt, Ruthie Foster, Rory Block, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, and, posthumously, both Phoebe Snow and famed blueswoman Koko Taylor.
In 1980, when a Blues Hall of Fame was established in Memphis, only two women were included in the first twenty inductees, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie.
In the liner notes, Muldaur remembers precisely the moment Memphis Minnie became a guiding light:
“I had the amazing good fortune and privilege when I was just starting out of meeting one of the original, classic blues queens, Victoria Spivey, when she was in her late 70s, living in New York City and running her own record label, Spivey Records. Taking me under her wing, she endeavored to mentor me and teach me the ropes. She took me to her apartment and played old 78s, looking for songs that would be suitable for my young voice. Of all the amazing tunes she played for me, the one that made the deepest impression was an old scratchy 78 of a haunting, soulful tune called ‘Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ by someone called Memphis Minnie. From that moment to this, Memphis Minnie, and the example she set, have remained profound influences on my life and on my music.”
A more-complete biography of Memphis Minnie can be found online at KnowLA.org, Louisiana’s online cultural encyclopedia: knowla.org/entry/1456/&view=summary.