Women do not simply sing the blues. They play them, too


It’s unimaginable to cowl or spotlight all of the Black ladies who performed or are presently enjoying the blues in a single story on this sequence, and even in a number of. Some have already been featured —like Elizabeth Cotten, the folk-blues of Odetta, or the extra fashionable blues-rock of Joan Armatrading. The woman who sang the blues, Billie Holiday, has had her personal function, as has Big Mama Thornton. I’ve additionally lined the function of race records in advertising and marketing and promoting blues acts like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, so if I don’t get to your favourite blueswoman this week, simply keep in mind that we’ve received years stuffed with Sundays forward.

Beginning firstly, I’ll introduce Lizzie Douglas, whose stage identify was Memphis Minnie. Biographers famous that she hated her delivery identify; relations referred to as her “Child.”

The Memphis Music Hall of Fame has this to say about her:

It’s been mentioned that Memphis Minnie performed guitar “like a person.”

However there have been loads of males who wished to play guitar like Memphis Minnie. She as soon as even beat the good Huge Invoice Broonzy in a selecting contest. Her title “Queen of the Nation Blues” was no hype. Minnie did every part the boys might do, and he or she did it in a elaborate robe with full hair and make-up. She had all of it: stellar guitar chops, a strong voice, an enormous repertoire together with many unique, signature songs and a stage presence concurrently glamorous, bawdy and difficult.

She transcended each gender and style. Her recording profession reached from the Twenties heyday of nation blues to reducing electrical sides in Nineteen Fifties Chicago studios for the Chess subsidiary Checker. Minnie helped kind the roots of electrical Chicago blues, in addition to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, lengthy earlier than she plugged in. Her distinctive storytelling fashion of songwriting drew such shocking followers as Nation Music Corridor of Famer Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, who lined her track a few favourite horse, “Frankie Jean,” proper right down to copying Minnie’s whistling. Although she impressed as many males as ladies, her affect was significantly sturdy on feminine musicians, her disciples together with her niece Lavern Baker, a rock and R&B pioneer in her personal proper, in addition to Maria Muldaur (who launched a 2012 tribute CD) Bonnie Raitt (who paid for her gravestone), Rory Block, Tracy Nelson, Saffire and nearly each different guitar-slinging lady since.

Roger Hahn, writing for the 64 Parishes Louisiana journal, opens her story

Lizzie Douglas was born on June 3, 1897, the eldest of 13 youngsters born to Abe and Gertrude Douglas, Baptist sharecroppers of African American heritage who had settled within the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. On the time Douglas was born, Algiers was a serious industrial hub, with shipbuilding and restore yards, stockyards and slaughterhouses, and a sprawling rail yard that attracted a whole lot of immigrant employees and their households, together with these with German, Irish, Sicilian, and African American heritage.

To supply leisure for these hard-working laborers and their households, Algiers boasted greater than forty bars and dance halls. This vibrant surroundings produced a wealth of musical expertise, together with such well-known bandleaders and jazz musicians as Oscar “Papa” Celestine, “Kid” Thomas Valentine, and Henry “Pink” Allen. Though the Douglas household relocated to Partitions, Mississippi, roughly twenty miles southwest of Memphis, when Lizzie was seven, the musical atmosphere of her early childhood years made a powerful impression on the headstrong, defiantly impartial younger lady. She requested for a guitar for her first Christmas away from New Orleans, and he or she usually ran away from dwelling, guitar in tow, to partake of the music scene round Beale Avenue in downtown Memphis. These frequent, brief intervals away happened even earlier than Douglas reached adolescence. Earlier than lengthy, she left dwelling for good, making a reputation for herself within the extremely aggressive music scene of Memphis whereas nonetheless a young person.

Queen of Chicago Blues

Douglas started to journey with vaudeville and tent exhibits, together with the Ringling Brothers Circus, the place she realized showmanship. For a number of years, she partnered with the extremely revered Delta-style guitarist Willie Brown, performing frequently for vacationers on a scenic boat journey on a lake close to Memphis. Whereas Douglas labored on perfecting her personal fashion, Brown complemented her by enjoying background rhythm and bass runs. Each experiences ready Douglas for her life in music: though she collaborated with three completely different guitar-playing husbands, none outshone her personal larger-than-life musical persona. By most accounts, Douglas’s stage presence stemmed from her admiration of vaudeville blues pioneer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, significantly her self-confident spirit and stylishly unique wardrobe.

Hahn discusses Minnie additional on this 2014 workshop. He factors out that her work has loved a resurgence due to not the efforts of historians, however of younger ladies musicians of as we speak who’re championing those that got here earlier than them. 

Hahn additionally reads from a 1942 column Langston Hughes wrote for The Chicago Defender about seeing her carry out at Chicago’s 230 Membership.

Midnight. The electrical guitar may be very loud, science having magnified all its softness away. Memphis Minnie sings via a microphone and her voice—arduous and robust anyhow for somewhat lady’s—is made tougher and stronger by scientific sound. The singing, the electrical guitar, and the drums are so arduous and so loud, amplified as they’re by Normal Electrical on high of the icebox, that typically the voice, the phrases, and the melody get misplaced underneath sheer noise, leaving solely the rhythm to return via clear. The rhythm fills the 230 Membership with a deep and dusky heartbeat that overrides all fashionable amplification. The rhythm is as previous as Memphis Minnie’s most distant ancestor.

Memphis Minnie’s ft in her high-heeled footwear maintain time to the music of her electrical guitar. Her skinny legs transfer like musical pistons. She is a slender, light-brown lady who seems like an old-maid college instructor with a sly humorousness. She wears glasses that fail to cover her shiny bird-like eyes. She attire neatly and sits straight in her chair perched on high of the fridge the place the beer is saved. Earlier than she performs she cocks her head on one facet like a fowl, glances from her place on the field to the crowded bar beneath, frowns quizzically, and appears greater than ever like a coloured woman instructor in a neat Southern college about to say, “Youngsters, the lesson is on web page 14 as we speak, paragraph 2.”

However Memphis Minnie says nothing of the type. As an alternative she grabs the microphone and yells, “Hey, now!” Then she hits a couple of deep chords at random, leans ahead ever so barely over her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out previous regular down-home rhythm on the strings—a rhythm so contagious that always it makes the gang holler out loud. Then Minnie smiles. Her gold tooth flash for a cut up second. Her ear-rings tremble. Her left hand with darkish pink nails strikes up and down the strings of the guitar’s neck. Her proper hand with the cube ring on it picks out the tune, throbs out the rhythm, beats out the blues. Then, via the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy previous swamps, Mississippi mud and solar, cotton fields, lonesome roads, prepare whistles within the evening, mosquitoes at daybreak, and the Rural Free Supply that by no means brings the precise letter. All these items cry via the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electrical guitar, amplified to machine proportions—a musical model of electrical welders plus a rolling mill.

Hughes describes Minnie as schoolmarmish; she could have regarded that means, however her use of sly, sexual innuendo in her lyrics was legendary. Take her 1930 hit “Bumble Bee” for instance.


Bumble bee, bumble bee, please come again to me
Bumble bee, bumble bee, please come again to me
He received the most effective previous stinger any bumble bee that I ever seen
He stung me this morning
I been in search of him all day lengthy
He stung me this morning
I been in search of him all day lengthy
Lord, it received me to the place
Hate to see my bumble bee go away dwelling

Considered one of her greatest hits additionally has layers of which means.


Will not you be my chauffeur
Will not you be my chauffeur
I needs him to drive me
I needs him to drive me downtown
Sure he drives really easy, I can not flip him down
However I do not need him
However I do not need him
To be ridin’ these ladies
To be ridin’ these ladies round
So I am gonna steal me a pistol, shoot my chauffeur down
Properly I have to purchase him
Properly I have to purchase him
A model new V8
A model new V8 Ford
Then he will not want no passengers, I will likely be his load

What do you assume? Are these lyrics about ladies’s shopping for energy sexual, rooted in jealousy, or one thing else?

An absorbing introduction to her life and work and a must-read is Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, by authors Paul and Beth Garon.

Bookcover: Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie

Universally acknowledged as one of many biggest blues artists, Memphis Minnie (1897–1973) wrote and recorded a whole lot of songs. Blues individuals as numerous as Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Huge Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a serious affect. At a time when most feminine vocalists sang Tin Pan Alley materials, Minnie wrote her personal lyrics and accompanied her singing with virtuoso guitar enjoying. Because of her cruel creativeness and darkish humor, her songs rank among the many most vigorous and difficult standard poetry in any language.

Girl with Guitar is the primary full-length examine of the life and work of this extraordinary free spirit, specializing in the full of life interaction between Minnie’s evolving artistry and the African American neighborhood wherein she lived and labored. Drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, vital concept, ladies’s research, and surrealism, the authors’ explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of standard tradition in addition to the largely hidden historical past of working-class ladies’s self-emancipation.

Lizzie Douglas died Aug. 6, 1973. This brief video documentary, made by Mississippi native Jerry Skinner, takes you to her grave.

The story behind her lastly getting a grave marker, due to the efforts of Skip Henderson, who based The Mount Zion Memorial Fund, is informed in this 1997 New York Times article by Emily Yellin.

Final 12 months, a big granite gravestone was lastly positioned on her grave as relations, followers and journalists packed an elaborate dedication service within the tiny rural church. The British Broadcasting Company filmed the occasion. The musicians John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt donated cash for the grave marker. And thru all of it, the blues singer’s little sister and oldest surviving relative watched in amazement.

”I used to be so pleased,” mentioned Daisy Douglas Johnson, 82, who mentioned she had had no thought how well-known her sister had been.”I felt she was getting the popularity she ought to have gotten in life.” Subsequent to Ms. Johnson, because the gravestone was unveiled, stood Skip Henderson, the person who had helped make it potential.

Hers was the ninth marker erected by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund, which Mr. Henderson arrange in 1990 to honor Delta blues musicians laid to relaxation in unmarked or poorly marked graves. The fund is known as for the Morgan Metropolis church in whose graveyard its first memorial, to the Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, was put in. Later this fall, Sam Chatmon, the son of a slave, will change into the tenth Delta blues musician to be memorialized.

 Whereas Memphis Minnie arose from avenue hustling, the circus, and juke joints, Sister Rosetta Tharpe got here out of one of many oldest American Black music traditions: gospel. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas offers a brief biography.

Rosetta Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) on March 20, 1915, to Katie Bell Nubin Atkins—an evangelist, singer, and mandolin participant for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC)—and Willis Atkins. She glided by the primary names Rosa, Rosie Etta, and Rosabell, and used each her father’s final identify and her mom’s maiden identify, Nubin. She started acting at age 4, enjoying guitar and singing “Jesus Is on the Essential Line.” By age six, she appeared frequently along with her mom, performing a mixture of gospel and secular music types that may finally make her well-known. As a youth, she might sing and carry on pitch and maintain a melody. Her vocal qualities, nevertheless, paled beside her skills on the guitar—she performed particular person tones, melodies, and riffs as an alternative of simply strumming chords. This expertise was all of the extra exceptional as a result of, on the time, few African-American ladies performed guitar.

Her guitar fashion was influenced by her mom’s mandolin enjoying and by pianist Arizona Dranes. She additionally sang the favored hymns of the day, together with the compositions of bluesman turned gospel musician Thomas A. Dorsey. Certainly, components of the blues are readily obvious in her guitar styling. Later, her music could be influenced by her work with jazz greats Fortunate Millinder and Cab Calloway.

Whereas she is now hailed as “The Godmother of Rock and Roll,” I really feel like a step is lacking. Rock and roll was birthed in rhythm and blues (R&B), and he or she was clearly a blues guitar participant and singer extraordinaire.

All it’s important to do is hearken to her boogie-woogie blues hit “Unusual Issues Occurring Each Day,”a standard gospel track which she blued up when she recorded it in 1944; in 1945 it turned the primary gospel crossover hit on the race information charts. 

Even earlier, in 1938, she recorded “Rock Me” for Decca Data, which some musicologists have dubbed “the primary rock and roll report.” 

In 2011, BBC 4 aired Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, written and directed by filmmaker Mick Csaky; in 2013 the movie aired america as a part of the PBS American Masters sequence.

In case you are taken with additional examine, Shout, Sister, Shout! by Gayle Wald is a wonderful introduction to Tharpe’s music and life.

Bookcover: Shout Sister Shout

Lengthy earlier than “ladies in rock” turned a media catchphrase, African American guitar virtuoso Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular style that ladies might rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe was gospel’s first famous person and the preeminent crossover determine of its golden age (1945–1965).

Shout, Sister, Shout! is the primary biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of standard musicians—from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Etta James. Tharpe was raised within the Pentecostal Church, steeped within the gospel custom, however she produced music that crossed boundaries, defied classification, and disregarded the social and cultural norms of the age. Blues singer, gospel singer, people artist, and rock-and-roller, she “went electrical” within the late Nineteen Thirties, fascinating each white and black audiences within the North and South, within the U.S. and internationally, along with her charisma and talent. Bold and relentlessly public, Tharpe even staged her personal wedding ceremony as a gospel live performance in a stadium holding 20,000 individuals.

That 1951 wedding-concert extravaganza was written up in The Washingtonian in 2007. The title says all of it: “The Bride Played Guitar; A gospel star, two music promoters, a stadium, 20,000 fans, fireworks, and the biggest wedding DC had ever seen”:

Janis Joplin, the white blues singer, is often credited as the primary feminine “stadium rocker.” But the exceptional success of Rosetta’s 1951 wedding ceremony live performance at Griffith Stadium demonstrates how incomplete standard reminiscence will be, particularly in relation to gospel, which has by no means loved the broad attraction of jazz or rhythm and blues.

Rosetta wasn’t a rock performer by any standard definition. Her music by no means focused a youth viewers, and regardless of excursions into secular music, she noticed herself primarily as a spiritual performer. But on July 3, 1951, a balmy summer season night when Washington’s trolleys and buses sat idle due to a strike, she outsold the hometown Senators.

Decca, which made a recording of the marriage live performance, put the gang quantity at 22,000, speculating that 30,000 or extra would have come had site visitors not been snarled. The Afro-American, which featured the story on its entrance web page, mentioned 15,000. Ebony guessed 20,000.

Fortunately for us, there’s a recording of the ceremony. Watch as he crowd will get into the spirit and laughs at humorous strains from officiant the Rev. Samuel Kelsey. 

For my guitar-playing readers particularly, take a look at this stay footage reel of Tharpe’s solos, which show her virtuosity.

Like many different followers of her music, I discovered it unconscionable that it took till 2018 for her to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame, when she is without doubt one of the rocks upon which all the style was based.

Mark Anthony Neal, creator and professor of Black Standard Tradition at Duke College, lately posted a hyperlink to his 2016 podcast, wherein “a gaggle of Greensboro musicians honor Sister Rosetta Tharpe with a night of storytelling and music.

I might sit right here and play the nice Sister all day, however I’ll shut with “That’s All” (for now).

Be a part of me within the feedback part for even extra girls enjoying the blues, and please do submit your favorites.