Written by Paul & Beth Garon
City Lights Books
This biographical study was first published in 1992 by Da Capo Press. In the ensuing years, researchers like Jim O’Neal, Robert Pruter, and Bob Eagle have uncovered additional information and documents that, combined with the original work, give us more insight into the life and career of Memphis Minnie, one of the most prolific blues singers in history. The authors, Paul & Beth Garon, have collected all of the new findings and incorporated them into a study that explores Minnie’s music and how it reflected the world that she lived in.
Minnie Douglas was born on June 3, 1897 supposedly in Algiers, Louisiana. Research has cast some doubts about the location, which causes some speculation by the authors. Her father was a sharecropper but Minnie never fancied the hard life on a farm. She received a guitar for Christmas at age eight, setting in motion an interest in music that would provide an escape route from field work. Soon she was running off to hang out on Beale Street in Memphis, where she undoubtedly was schooled on singing and guitar techniques. Soon she hit the road as part of a touring Ringling Brothers show, rounding out her rough edges and teaching her the value of showmanship as well as the art of survival. The book adds this quote from bluesman Johnny Shines, “She didn’t take no foolishness off them (men). ..anything she get her hands on she’d use it; ..Memphis Minnie used to be a hellcat.”
She soon developed into a mesmerizing singer and a masterful guitarist considered to be as good as any man. When she paired up with Kansas Joe McCoy in Memphis, they shared the vocals over their dazzling National steel guitar interplay. Soon they cut their first records for Columbia in 1929 and the following year did multiple sessions for the Vocalion label. Columbia issued classic tracks “When the Levee Breaks, “Frisco Town”, and “Bumble Bee” while “Dirt Dauber Blues”, “What’s the Matter with the Mill”, and “Plymouth Rock Blues” were hits for Vocalion. Several years later they had releases on Decca and Bluebird. By 1934, the pair cut their last session. The authors discuss whether their parting was due to Joe being jealous of Minnie’s fame or because he had got religion.
Minnie continued on alone, cutting records on a regular basis under the guidance of Lester Melrose, who provided a steady stream of talent to the major labels. Minnie followed the great migration north and ended up in Chicago. There she found regular club work befitting an artist of her stature. She also incorporated the new sound of single string guitar picking that started with the legendary Lonnie Johnson. By the end of the decade, Minnie has another great partner, Earnest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars, a fine guitar man who became Minnie’s second husband and recording partner for the next twenty years.
The book is divided into three sections. The first part – The Life – recounts details of Minnie’s life and recording career. There isn’t much in the way of print articles on Minnie, although sources like The Chicago Defender newspaper files contain ads for Minnie’s appearances in Chicago clubs. Details come from remembrances from other blues artists like Jimmy Rogers, Champion Jack Dupree, Brewer Phillips, and Homesick James. No one disputes that Minnie was a rough woman as well as a top-notch blues musician. Several pages recount the success Minnie had at cutting contests, even when she was pitted against legends like Big Bill Broonzy.
The next section of the book – The Songs – breaks down her extensive recordings into fourteen general topical categories. This allows the authors to dig deep to reveal hidden or thinly veiled meanings in the lyrics – “Our aim is to reveal the unheard side of Minnie’s entire realm so that we might recover the power of her achievement in a way that addresses the urgent needs of humankind today”. They explore the influence of racism, women’s rights, sexual tension, and even voodoo on Minnie’s songwriting. “ The blues itself sabotages “bourgeois discourse” by its advocacy of non-repressive values….”. They also find similarities between Minnie’s lyrics and famous poets like Rimbaud – “Thus, there may be an analogy between how we listen to the blues and how surrealist poets listen to the unconscious”. At times their musings require your undivided attention in order to grasp the point under discussion.
The Appendices section includes a listing of her nightclub performances, a thirty-six page discography covering the 250 songs that she played and/or sang on, an additional forty pages of notes by chapter, and twenty-four pages of photos and documents that bring you closer to the beautiful woman who made beautiful music.
Minnie cut her last record in 1959. A short time later, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to play the guitar. Her sister, Daisy Douglas Johnson, cared for her in Memphis until she was unable to continue. Minnie was moved to a nursing home, where she lived until her death in 1973. Her grave remained unmarked until 1996, when Bonnie Raitt financed the purchase of a fitting headstone.
The idea behind any biography is to bring the subject into brighter light, illuminating their character, their strengths and faults as well as their impact on the world around them. The Garons and their contributors have certainly fulfilled that goal. This updated volume celebrates the legacy of the person many claim was the first lady of the blues. Blues fans should relish this opportunity to discover more about Memphis Minnie, a pivotal figure in blues history.