Girls 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 at present taking part in the blues in a single story on this collection, and even in a number of. Some have already been featured —like Elizabeth Cotten, the folk-blues of Odetta, or the extra trendy blues-rock of Joan Armatrading. The woman who sang the blues, Billie Holiday, has had her personal characteristic, as has Big Mama Thornton. I’ve additionally lined the position 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 do not forget that we’ve received years filled with Sundays forward.

Beginning at the start, I’ll introduce Lizzie Douglas, whose stage title was Memphis Minnie. Biographers famous that she hated her start title; members of the family known as her “Child.”

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

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

However there have been loads of males who needed to play guitar like Memphis Minnie. She as soon as even beat the nice Large 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 robust voice, an enormous repertoire together with many authentic, signature songs and a stage presence concurrently glamorous, bawdy and hard.

She transcended each gender and style. Her recording profession reached from the Nineteen Twenties heyday of nation blues to slicing electrical sides in Fifties Chicago studios for the Chess subsidiary Checker. Minnie helped type 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 tune 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 robust 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 just about 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 kids 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 significant industrial hub, with shipbuilding and restore yards, stockyards and slaughterhouses, and a sprawling rail yard that attracted tons of of immigrant employees and their households, together with these with German, Irish, Sicilian, and African American heritage.

To offer leisure for these hard-working laborers and their households, Algiers boasted greater than forty bars and dance halls. This vibrant atmosphere produced a wealth of musical expertise, together with such well-known bandleaders and jazz musicians as Oscar “Papa” Celestine, “Kid” Thomas Valentine, and Henry “Purple” 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 unbiased younger woman. She requested for a guitar for her first Christmas away from New Orleans, and he or she typically ran away from house, guitar in tow, to partake of the music scene round Beale Road in downtown Memphis. These frequent, brief intervals away passed off even earlier than Douglas reached adolescence. Earlier than lengthy, she left house 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 commonly for vacationers on a scenic boat experience on a lake close to Memphis. Whereas Douglas labored on perfecting her personal fashion, Brown complemented her by taking part in background rhythm and bass runs. Each experiences ready Douglas for her life in music: though she collaborated with three totally 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 at present 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 by way of a microphone and her voice—exhausting and powerful anyhow for a little bit lady’s—is made more durable and stronger by scientific sound. The singing, the electrical guitar, and the drums are so exhausting and so loud, amplified as they’re by Normal Electrical on prime of the icebox, that typically the voice, the phrases, and the melody get misplaced beneath sheer noise, leaving solely the rhythm to return by way of clear. The rhythm fills the 230 Membership with a deep and dusky heartbeat that overrides all trendy amplification. The rhythm is as outdated as Memphis Minnie’s most distant ancestor.

Memphis Minnie’s toes 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 appears like an old-maid college instructor with a sly humorousness. She wears glasses that fail to cover her vibrant bird-like eyes. She clothes neatly and sits straight in her chair perched on prime of the fridge the place the beer is stored. Earlier than she performs she cocks her head on one facet like a chook, glances from her place on the field to the crowded bar under, 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 at present, paragraph 2.”

However Memphis Minnie says nothing of the type. As an alternative she grabs the microphone and yells, “Hey, now!” Then she hits just a few deep chords at random, leans ahead ever so barely over her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out an excellent outdated regular down-home rhythm on the strings—a rhythm so contagious that always it makes the group holler out loud. Then Minnie smiles. Her gold tooth flash for a cut up second. Her ear-rings tremble. Her left hand with darkish crimson 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, by way of the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy outdated swamps, Mississippi mud and solar, cotton fields, lonesome roads, practice whistles within the night time, mosquitoes at daybreak, and the Rural Free Supply that by no means brings the suitable letter. All this stuff cry by way of 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 appeared that manner, 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 one of the best outdated 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 depart house

One among her greatest hits additionally has layers of that 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 am unable to 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 need to purchase him
Properly I need to purchase him
A model new V8
A model new V8 Ford
Then he will not want no passengers, I can be his load

What do you suppose? 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 best blues artists, Memphis Minnie (1897–1973) wrote and recorded tons of of songs. Blues folks as numerous as Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Large Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a significant 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 taking part in. Due to her cruel creativeness and darkish humor, her songs rank among the many most vigorous and difficult fashionable poetry in any language.

Girl with Guitar is the primary full-length research of the life and work of this extraordinary free spirit, specializing in the energetic interaction between Minnie’s evolving artistry and the African American neighborhood during which she lived and labored. Drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, crucial principle, ladies’s research, and surrealism, the authors’ explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of fashionable 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 yr, a big granite gravestone was lastly positioned on her grave as members of the family, 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 comfortable,” stated Daisy Douglas Johnson, 82, who stated she had had no concept 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 attainable.

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 called 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 grow to be the tenth Delta blues musician to be memorialized.

 Whereas Memphis Minnie arose from road 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 title and her mom’s maiden title, Nubin. She started acting at age 4, taking part in guitar and singing “Jesus Is on the Principal Line.” By age six, she appeared commonly along with her mom, performing a mixture of gospel and secular music kinds that may finally make her well-known. As a youth, she might sing and carry on pitch and maintain a melody. Her vocal qualities, nonetheless, paled beside her skills on the guitar—she performed particular person tones, melodies, and riffs as a substitute of simply strumming chords. This expertise was all of the extra outstanding as a result of, on the time, few African-American ladies performed guitar.

Her guitar fashion was influenced by her mom’s mandolin taking part in 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, parts of the blues are readily obvious in her guitar styling. Later, her music can 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 you need to do is take heed to her boogie-woogie blues hit “Unusual Issues Taking place Each Day,”a conventional gospel tune which she blued up when she recorded it in 1944; in 1945 it turned the primary gospel crossover hit on the race data charts. 

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

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 the USA as a part of the PBS American Masters collection.

If you’re concerned about additional research, 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 fashionable 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, folks artist, and rock-and-roller, she “went electrical” within the late Nineteen Thirties, charming each white and black audiences within the North and South, within the U.S. and internationally, along with her charisma and ability. Formidable and relentlessly public, Tharpe even staged her personal marriage ceremony as a gospel live performance in a stadium holding 20,000 folks.

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 marriage ceremony live performance at Griffith Stadium demonstrates how incomplete fashionable reminiscence could be, particularly on the subject of gospel, which has by no means loved the broad attraction of jazz or rhythm and blues.

Rosetta wasn’t a rock performer by any typical definition. Her music by no means focused a youth viewers, and regardless of excursions into secular music, she noticed herself primarily as a non secular 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 group quantity at 22,000, speculating that 30,000 or extra would have come had visitors not been snarled. The Afro-American, which featured the story on its entrance web page, stated 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 specifically, try this reside 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 among the rocks upon which the complete style was based.

Mark Anthony Neal, writer and professor of Black In style Tradition at Duke College, lately posted a hyperlink to his 2016 podcast, during which “a bunch 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 part of me within the feedback part for even extra girls taking part in the blues, and please do submit your favorites.