When you think about the origin of the blues, do you think about an older Black gentleman from the south? Most people do. Women were also heavily involved with the blues.
Memphis Minnie was noted by Big Bill Broonzy as being “the best woman blues guitarist he has ever heard.” She earned the respect of record buying fans and the praise of all the blues artists that she worked with throughout her four decade long career.
Memphis Minnie was born Elizabeth Douglas on June 3, 1897, in Algiers Louisiana and was the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. Like most things in that era, music was also homemade. In 1907 a blues musician would play in all kinds of places like house parties, barrel houses, work camps, and traveling shows. Influenced by the local string players that performed at these parties, Minnie obtained her first guitar at the age of 11.
In those days women were limited to household service and farm work – exhausting labor. Memphis Minnie was never interested in this lifestyle. She re-located to Memphis in the early 1920’s and married her first husband Casey Bill Weldon, who played guitar with the popular Memphis Jug Band. Together they both played guitar and sang on Beale Street and surrounding towns in Memphis.
Minnie could hold her own against any of the blues artists of her time. She has inspired many of today’s aspiring guitarists.
In order to be heard above the crowds, Minnie was quick to embrace the latest technologies. She was one of the first blues players to use a National Guitar. In later years guitarists had amplification to help them be heard, but in those days the National guitar was three to five times as loud as any made of wood. This was because the guitar was made of metal, which is what makes it instantly recognizable.
Starting in 1929, Minnie’s recordings exemplify her life, as she moved from the rural South to metropolitan Chicago. After the stock market crash, record companies began to seek out rural guitar based music. Regardless of what was either more cost-effective or what they were promoting at the time, Memphis Minnie made her professional recording debut in 1929.
Minnie and her second husband Joe based themselves in Chicago throughout the early thirties; recording both together and separately. Their marriage and melodic affiliation eventually ended in the mid-thirties. Minnie became more accepted as a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter.
In 1939 she married Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlars. In the mid fifties music was changing with the fabrication of rock and roll. Major record labels were beginning to pull out of the blues market.
Memphis Minnie’s voice is of an artist who never put up with exploitation, and managed to find happiness while living through tough times. In 1957 Minnie returned to Memphis and retired from the music business. She moved into a nursing home where she lived until her death on August 6th, 1973 at the age of 76.
About the contributor:
Andrea Gibson is a blueswoman, hails from Memphis and uses her gibson les paul standard traditional at guitar center for all of her “blues work.” She studies all of the historical blues artists and wants to make sure that they are not forgotten and wants people to know where the blues came from.