Ladies don’t just sing the blues. They play them, too

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It is impossible to cover or highlight all the Black women who played or are currently playing the blues in one story in this series, or even in several. Some have already been featured —like Elizabeth Cotten, the folk-blues of Odetta, or the more modern blues-rock of Joan Armatrading. The lady who sang the blues, Billie Holiday, has had her own feature, as has Big Mama Thornton. I’ve also covered the role of race records in marketing and selling blues acts like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, so if I don’t get to your favorite blueswoman this week, just remember that we’ve got years full of Sundays ahead.

Starting at the beginning, I’ll introduce Lizzie Douglas, whose stage name was Memphis Minnie. Biographers noted that she hated her birth name; family members called her “Kid.”

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

It’s been said that Memphis Minnie played guitar “like a man.”

But there were plenty of men who wanted to play guitar like Memphis Minnie. She once even beat the great Big Bill Broonzy in a picking contest. Her title “Queen of the Country Blues” was no hype. Minnie did everything the boys could do, and she did it in a fancy gown with full hair and makeup. She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough.

She transcended both gender and genre. Her recording career reached from the 1920s heyday of country blues to cutting electric sides in 1950s Chicago studios for the Chess subsidiary Checker. Minnie helped form the roots of electric Chicago blues, as well as R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, long before she plugged in. Her unique storytelling style of songwriting drew such surprising fans as Country Music Hall of Famer Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, who covered her song about a favorite horse, “Frankie Jean,” right down to copying Minnie’s whistling. Though she inspired as many men as women, her influence was particularly strong on female musicians, her disciples including her niece Lavern Baker, a rock and R&B pioneer in her own right, as well as Maria Muldaur (who released a 2012 tribute CD) Bonnie Raitt (who paid for her headstone), Rory Block, Tracy Nelson, Saffire and virtually every other guitar-slinging woman since.

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

Lizzie Douglas was born on June 3, 1897, the eldest of thirteen children born to Abe and Gertrude Douglas, Baptist sharecroppers of African American heritage who had settled in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. At the time Douglas was born, Algiers was a major industrial hub, with shipbuilding and repair yards, stockyards and slaughterhouses, and a sprawling rail yard that attracted hundreds of immigrant workers and their families, including those with German, Irish, Sicilian, and African American heritage.

To provide entertainment for these hard-working laborers and their families, Algiers boasted more than forty bars and dance halls. This vibrant environment produced a wealth of musical talent, including such well-known bandleaders and jazz musicians as Oscar “Papa” Celestine, “Kid” Thomas Valentine, and Henry “Red” Allen. Although the Douglas family relocated to Walls, Mississippi, roughly twenty miles southwest of Memphis, when Lizzie was seven, the musical ambience of her early childhood years made a strong impression on the headstrong, defiantly independent young girl. She asked for a guitar for her first Christmas away from New Orleans, and she often ran away from home, guitar in tow, to partake of the music scene around Beale Street in downtown Memphis. These frequent, short periods away took place even before Douglas reached adolescence. Before long, she left home for good, making a name for herself in the highly competitive music scene of Memphis while still a teenager.

Queen of Chicago Blues

Douglas began to travel with vaudeville and tent shows, including the Ringling Brothers Circus, where she learned showmanship. For several years, she partnered with the highly respected Delta-style guitarist Willie Brown, performing regularly for tourists on a scenic boat ride on a lake near Memphis. While Douglas worked on perfecting her own style, Brown complemented her by playing background rhythm and bass runs. Both experiences prepared Douglas for her life in music: although she collaborated with three different guitar-playing husbands, none outshone her own larger-than-life musical persona. By most accounts, Douglas’s stage presence stemmed from her admiration of vaudeville blues pioneer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, particularly her self-confident spirit and stylishly exotic wardrobe.

Hahn discusses Minnie further in this 2014 workshop. He points out that her work has enjoyed a resurgence due not to the efforts of historians, but of young women musicians of today who are championing those who came before them. 

Hahn also reads from a 1942 column Langston Hughes wrote for The Chicago Defender about seeing her perform at Chicago’s 230 Club.

Midnight. The electric guitar is very loud, science having magnified all its softness away. Memphis Minnie sings through a microphone and her voice—hard and strong anyhow for a little woman’s—is made harder and stronger by scientific sound. The singing, the electric guitar, and the drums are so hard and so loud, amplified as they are by General Electric on top of the icebox, that sometimes the voice, the words, and the melody get lost under sheer noise, leaving only the rhythm to come through clear. The rhythm fills the 230 Club with a deep and dusky heartbeat that overrides all modern amplification. The rhythm is as old as Memphis Minnie’s most remote ancestor.

Memphis Minnie’s feet in her high-heeled shoes keep time to the music of her electric guitar. Her thin legs move like musical pistons. She is a slender, light-brown woman who looks like an old-maid school teacher with a sly sense of humor. She wears glasses that fail to hide her bright bird-like eyes. She dresses neatly and sits straight in her chair perched on top of the refrigerator where the beer is kept. Before she plays she cocks her head on one side like a bird, glances from her place on the box to the crowded bar below, frowns quizzically, and looks more than ever like a colored lady teacher in a neat Southern school about to say, “Children, the lesson is on page 14 today, paragraph 2.”

But Memphis Minnie says nothing of the sort. Instead she grabs the microphone and yells, “Hey, now!” Then she hits a few deep chords at random, leans forward ever so slightly over her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out a good old steady down-home rhythm on the strings—a rhythm so contagious that often it makes the crowd holler out loud. Then Minnie smiles. Her gold teeth flash for a split second. Her ear-rings tremble. Her left hand with dark red nails moves up and down the strings of the guitar’s neck. Her right hand with the dice ring on it picks out the tune, throbs out the rhythm, beats out the blues. Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions—a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.

Hughes describes Minnie as schoolmarmish; she may have looked that way, but her use of sly, sexual innuendo in her lyrics was legendary. Take her 1930 hit “Bumble Bee” as an example.

Lyrics:

Bumble bee, bumble bee, please come back to me
Bumble bee, bumble bee, please come back to me
He got the best old stinger any bumble bee that I ever seen
He stung me this morning
I been looking for him all day long
He stung me this morning
I been looking for him all day long
Lord, it got me to the place
Hate to see my bumble bee leave home

One of her biggest hits also has layers of meaning.

Lyrics

Won’t you be my chauffeur
Won’t you be my chauffeur
I wants him to drive me
I wants him to drive me downtown
Yes he drives so easy, I can’t turn him down
But I don’t want him
But I don’t want him
To be ridin’ these girls
To be ridin’ these girls around
So I’m gonna steal me a pistol, shoot my chauffeur down
Well I must buy him
Well I must buy him
A brand new V8
A brand new V8 Ford
Then he won’t need no passengers, I will be his load

What do you think? Are these lyrics about women’s buying power sexual, rooted in jealousy, or something 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.

Universally recognized as one of the greatest blues artists, Memphis Minnie (1897–1973) wrote and recorded hundreds of songs. Blues people as diverse as Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Big Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a major influence. At a time when most female vocalists sang Tin Pan Alley material, Minnie wrote her own lyrics and accompanied her singing with virtuoso guitar playing. Thanks to her merciless imagination and dark humor, her songs rank among the most vigorous and challenging popular poetry in any language.

Woman with Guitar is the first full-length study of the life and work of this extraordinary free spirit, focusing on the lively interplay between Minnie’s evolving artistry and the African American community in which she lived and worked. Drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, critical theory, women’s studies, and surrealism, the authors’ explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of popular culture as well as the largely hidden history of working-class women’s self-emancipation.

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

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

Last year, a large granite headstone was finally placed on her grave as family members, fans and journalists packed an elaborate dedication service in the tiny rural church. The British Broadcasting Corporation filmed the event. The musicians John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt donated money for the grave marker. And through it all, the blues singer’s little sister and oldest surviving relative watched in amazement.

”I was so happy,” said Daisy Douglas Johnson, 82, who said she had had no idea how famous her sister had been.”I felt she was getting the recognition she should have gotten in life.” Next to Ms. Johnson, as the headstone was unveiled, stood Skip Henderson, the man who had helped make it possible.

Hers was the ninth marker erected by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund, which Mr. Henderson set up in 1990 to honor Delta blues musicians laid to rest in unmarked or poorly marked graves. The fund is named for the Morgan City church in whose graveyard its first memorial, to the Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, was installed. Later this fall, Sam Chatmon, the son of a slave, will become the 10th Delta blues musician to be memorialized.

 Whereas Memphis Minnie arose from street hustling, the circus, and juke joints, Sister Rosetta Tharpe came out of one of the 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 player for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC)—and Willis Atkins. She went by the first names Rosa, Rosie Etta, and Rosabell, and used both her father’s last name and her mother’s maiden name, Nubin. She began performing at age four, playing guitar and singing “Jesus Is on the Main Line.” By age six, she appeared regularly with her mother, performing a mix of gospel and secular music styles that would eventually make her famous. As a youth, she could sing and keep on pitch and hold a melody. Her vocal qualities, however, paled beside her abilities on the guitar—she played individual tones, melodies, and riffs instead of just strumming chords. This talent was all the more remarkable because, at the time, few African-American women played guitar.

Her guitar style was influenced by her mother’s mandolin playing and by pianist Arizona Dranes. She also sang the popular hymns of the day, including the compositions of bluesman turned gospel musician Thomas A. Dorsey. Indeed, elements of the blues are readily apparent in her guitar styling. Later, her music would be influenced by her work with jazz greats Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway.

While she is now hailed as “The Godmother of Rock and Roll,” I feel like a step is missing. Rock and roll was birthed in rhythm and blues (R&B), and she was clearly a blues guitar player and singer extraordinaire.

All you have to do is listen to her boogie-woogie blues hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,”a traditional gospel song which she blued up when she recorded it in 1944; in 1945 it became the first gospel crossover hit on the race records charts. 

Even earlier, in 1938, she recorded “Rock Me” for Decca Records, which some musicologists have dubbed “the first rock and roll record.” 

In 2011, BBC Four aired Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll, written and directed by filmmaker Mick Csaky; in 2013 the film aired the United States as part of the PBS American Masters series.

If you are interested in further study, Shout, Sister, Shout! by Gayle Wald is an excellent introduction to Tharpe’s music and life.

Bookcover: Shout Sister Shout

Long before “women in rock” became a media catchphrase, African American guitar virtuoso Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe was gospel’s first superstar and the preeminent crossover figure of its golden age (1945–1965).

Shout, Sister, Shout! is the first biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of popular musicians—from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Etta James. Tharpe was raised in the Pentecostal Church, steeped in the gospel tradition, but she produced music that crossed boundaries, defied classification, and disregarded the social and cultural norms of the age. Blues singer, gospel singer, folk artist, and rock-and-roller, she “went electric” in the late 1930s, captivating both white and black audiences in the North and South, in the U.S. and internationally, with her charisma and skill. Ambitious and relentlessly public, Tharpe even staged her own wedding as a gospel concert in a stadium holding 20,000 people.

That 1951 wedding-concert extravaganza was written up in The Washingtonian in 2007. The title says it all: “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 usually credited as the first female “stadium rocker.” Yet the phenomenal success of Rosetta’s 1951 wedding concert at Griffith Stadium demonstrates how incomplete popular memory can be, especially when it comes to gospel, which has never enjoyed the broad appeal of jazz or rhythm and blues.

Rosetta wasn’t a rock performer by any conventional definition. Her music never targeted a youth audience, and despite excursions into secular music, she saw herself primarily as a religious performer. Yet on July 3, 1951, a balmy summer evening when Washington’s trolleys and buses sat idle because of a strike, she outsold the hometown Senators.

Decca, which made a recording of the wedding concert, put the crowd number at 22,000, speculating that 30,000 or more would have come had traffic not been snarled. The Afro-American, which featured the story on its front page, said 15,000. Ebony guessed 20,000.

Luckily for us, there is a recording of the ceremony. Watch as he crowd gets into the spirit and laughs at humorous lines from officiant the Rev. Samuel Kelsey. 

For my guitar-playing readers in particular, check out this live footage reel of Tharpe’s solos, which demonstrate her virtuosity.

Like many other fans of her music, I found it unconscionable that it took until 2018 for her to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when she is one of the rocks upon which the entire genre was founded.

Mark Anthony Neal, author and professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, recently posted a link to his 2016 podcast, in which “a group of Greensboro musicians honor Sister Rosetta Tharpe with an evening of storytelling and music.

I could sit here and play the good Sister all day, but I will close with “That’s All” (for now).

Join me in the comments section for even more ladies playing the blues, and please do post your favorites.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a direct offer or solicitation of an offer to buy or sell, or a recommendation or endorsement of any products, services, or companies. AllStocksNews.com does not provide investment, tax, legal, or accounting advice. Neither the company nor the author is responsible, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any content, goods or services mentioned in this article.

Owen Mayhttps://allstocksnews.com
Owen May is the editor-in-chief of AllStocksNews. He has a master's in economics and you will find him covering various topics.

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