Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Memphis Minnie, Defier of Taboos


From R. Crumb's "Heroes of the Blues"
Why did so few women follow the life Memphis Minnie chose? The answer lies in the sexual mores of the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, show business was not considered a respectable occupation for anyone, male or female, white or Black. 

The main reason for this social disapproval was that popular entertainers, especially singers, invariably traded on whatever sex appeal they had. Advertising their sexual availability, whether actual or symbolic, was part of their act. Across cultures, this is the most universal theme in popular music, and while it invariably conflicts with society's official attitudes about some sexual behavior, it usually reinforces having different standards for men and women. 

In Black American culture when Minnie was young, the taboo against women playing the blues was so strong it was almost completely successful. Women could sing sacred songs in church or at home, but they could not sing the blues in barrel houses. A woman who violated this taboo could not be a member of the church and was, therefore, cut off from support by the female community. 

Sure, male blues performers were considered spawn of the devil too, but a woman who played guitar and sang the blues in public also was assumed to be a whore, a lash of social censure for which there is no male equivalent. Memphis Minnie did not avoid these assumptions or that censure; she simply disregarded them and succeeded in spite of them. 

Although classic blues artists like Bessie Smith suffered the same social disapproval, their situation was more tolerable because they typically performed in theaters, insulated from the audience. Minnie played in bars and dance halls, where the heady mixture of alcohol, gambling, and sex was always present. 

She performed exposed on the dance floor or a makeshift platform. There was no orchestra pit, no backstage dressing room. 

Playing blues in the kinds of places where blues was played was dangerous for musicians of both sexes. Robert Johnson was only the best-known victim of his own successful sexual advertising. Jealous boyfriends and husbands, as well as jilted lovers, ended the life of many a bluesman. For a woman, the obvious additional risk was sexual assault. 


No comments: