Saturday, March 4, 2023

Memphis Minnie, A Blues Original


Lizzie 'Memphis Minnie' Douglas (1897-1973)
The blues tradition that most influenced modern popular music is that of the self-accompanied singer/songwriter. This tradition of the traveling musician who sings and plays guitar, and whose original songs address current events as well as timeless themes, is the "country blues" that begot the "urban blues" that begot rock and roll. Those musicians were almost exclusively male. Lizzie "Memphis Minnie" Douglas was the rare exception. 

The singers usually named as great blueswomen--Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, and many others--are from a different tradition, usually called "classic blues." This strain was born in the popular theater of the early twentieth century known as vaudeville. It combined blues ideas with then-popular European-American song forms to produce a sophisticated, sexy sound recognizable as the blues, but also different. 

"Classic" makes it sound old, but it was actually the newest thing, created by the first generation of African-American musicians to penetrate the mainstream American entertainment industry. Exemplified by Bessie Smith and W.C. Handy, they were professional musicians, often well-trained in the musical idioms of the dominant white culture. They generally had not "lived" the blues except peripherally. 

The term "classic" applies because this was the first type of blues to be recorded, beginning in 1921, and remained virtually the only style of blues recorded until the end of that decade. 

There is sometimes a tendency to portray the classic tradition as female and the country tradition as male, but this is not accurate. The purveyors of classic blues were both men and women. Its composers and musicians were mostly men, while the singers were mostly women. Country blues, the American griot tradition of the traveling, self-accompanied singer/songwriter, consisted almost entirely of men. Almost, but not entirely. 

Memphis Minnie was not the only women "in the blues," but their numbers were small, and she was unquestionably the most successful. For more than twenty years, she was among a handful of top blues performers, one of the few who survived the Depression with her career largely intact. She wrote most of the songs she performed, was an early innovator on both National steel and electric guitars and was the clear leader of the various ensembles in which she worked. The groups always included her man of the moment, and often other musicians as well. 


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