Saturday, March 11, 2023

Memphis Minnie, Life on the Road


Record company publicity photograph, 1930s.
Playing the blues in barrel houses and juke joints was dangerous. Memphis Minnie's solution was twofold. She always traveled and performed with a male partner, a husband for most of her career, but she also developed a reputation as a very rough customer. 

Minnie could take care of herself and made sure everyone knew it. She was quick with a bottle or knife, and didn't play an all-steel National guitar just for its sound. In Chicago, word was that she had killed more than one man back in Mississippi. Minnie laid down her rules so swiftly, decisively, and forcefully that there was no excuse for ignorance: Look all you want and listen, please, but touch without being asked and you will lose something; make no mistake. 

Memphis Minnie began life as Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, in 1897. She was the oldest of thirteen children and always "Kid" to her family, never Lizzie. "Memphis Minnie" was a name she was given much later by a white record-company executive. 

When "Kid" Douglas was seven, her family moved north to Walls, Mississippi, a small town just south of Memphis, Tennessee. About a year later, Douglas got her first guitar. She would do anything to avoid farm work, including run off to Memphis and play for nickels in the parks around Beale Street. During World War I, she toured the South with the Ringling Brothers traveling show out of Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

Toward the end of her run with the circus, while in her late teens or early twenties, Kid Douglas began to follow the blues in her own particular way. She would hook up with a man as lover, protector, and musical partner. He would play rhythm guitar to her lead, and both would sing and contribute songs. For about ten years, Douglas auditioned men for this job, including Willie Brown, who also worked with Robert Johnson and Son House. 

During this period, just after World War I, Kid Douglas was one of the few Black entertainers hired to play at parties for the local white aristocracy, usually when W. C. Handy was not available. She knew how to satisfy these audiences because of her traveling show experience, and she used that income to supplement the meager amounts she made playing blues. 

Around age 30, Kid Douglas hooked up with Joe McCoy. In 1929, the couple cut their first six sides in New York for Columbia, including one of their biggest hits, "Bumble Bee Blues." When the first sides from that session were released, the couple became "Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie."

Although her new name was coined by the record company, it suited her. Lizzie Douglas was no longer a kid. She was Memphis Minnie McCoy, popular blues recording artist. 

Like most blues singers, Minnie's whole life was spent on the road, whether recording in New York or Chicago, or touring the Midwest and South. Memphis was her home as much as any other place, but she also lived in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, where Joe McCoy was raised. 

After the success of their early records, they moved their base to Chicago but returned South often. Unlike many blues artists, the recording career of Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie survived the Depression, though greatly diminished. Retail prices for their records fell from seventy-five to thirty-five cents or less, and times were tough financially. 

There were personal and artistic differences, too. As their careers matured, it became clear that Minnie was the star of the pair, a fact that did not sit well with Kansas Joe. They split in 1935.


No comments: