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Memphis Minnie: Lady Sang the Blues

Memphis Minnie was a female blues guitarist and singer in what was an overwhelmingly man’s world.

They should make a movie about Minnie, who was born Lizzie Douglas in 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana, the oldest of 13 kids. The Wikipedia bio does a good job of describing her life, which included running away from home to live on Beale Street in Memphis, prostitution, cutting contests over bottles of liquor with Big Bill Broonzy and stardom. She was married three times. The middle husband was Kansas Joe McCoy, with whom she recorded “Me and My Chauffeur,” which is above.

Wikipedia offers the inscription that is on the back of her tombstone, which is in Walls, Mississippi. It’s great:

“The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”[21]

The public may have forgotten Minnie, but performers didn’t. The tombstone was paid for by Bonnie Raitt. The Jefferson Airplane recorded “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” on its first album. The Led Zeppelin song “When the Levee Breaks” is based on one of her songs.

There is a lot of America in the profile. The names are great: Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Kansas Joe McCoy, Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim, Snooky Pryor, Little Son Joe and the Squirrel. Minnie is described as somebody who took pride in her femininity but, somehow, also was quick to fight – with any weapon at hand – and chewed tobacco, even when performing. Minnie died in 1973.

One major and one minor note on the videos. The graphic at the 25-second mark of the “Bumble Bee” – which clearly is taken from the photograph preceding it – almost certainly was drawn by R. Crumb, the eccentric cartoonist responsible for the famous artwork on Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills” album. (It’s the thumbnail below.) Crumb drew dozens of blues players.

Perhaps more interesting is the footage interspersed in “Me and My Chauffeur  Blues.” Shots of early driving always are funny. It’s a miracle anyone survived. The driver clearly is Harold Lloyd. Only at the end – when the car pulls up to Yankee Stadium — does it become apparent that the passenger is none other than Babe Ruth. He had a gift for comedy. A longer excerpt of much higher quality is here.

Wikipedia was used to write this post. The homepage shot is by Thomas R. Machnitzki.