Memphis Minnie – An Unsung Blues Legend

There’s no Elvis or Beatles without the blues. To go further, there’s no modern music without the blues. Everyone knows Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, but how many of you know about Memphis Minnie? If you don’t, or even if you do, let me tell you who she was:

Lizzie “Kid” Douglas was born on June 3rd, 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the oldest of 13 siblings. Her nickname, Kid, was given when she was young by her parents. When Lizzie first began performing, she played under the name Kid Douglas. When she was 11-years-old, she and her family moved to Walls, Mississippi. The next year, she got her first guitar as a Christmas present. She learned to play the banjo at ten, and the guitar at eleven. In 1910, at 13-years-old, she ran away from home to live on Beale Street. She played on street corners for most of her teenage years, sometimes she would return to her family if she ran out of money.

Her street performances led her to tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus from 1916 to 1920. Then, she went back to Beale Street and made a living from playing and singing. Like other female performers at the time, she also supplemented income from sex work. In 1929, she began performing with Joe McCoy, her second husband. They were discovered by a scout from Columbia Records and sent to record in New York City. They were given the names Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie.

Over the next few years, they released a number of records as a duet. Eventually, Lizzie and Joe divorced in 1935. By that time, Minnie was an established musician in Chicago and she began to experiment with different sounds and styles. In 1942, Langston Hughes saw her at a New Year’s Eve party and wrote this: “[Minnie] 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.”

By the late 1940s, clubs had begun hiring cheaper, younger talent, and Columbia begun dropping blues artists. Unable to adapt, she moved to smaller labels. She continued to record until her health declined in the 1950s, later, she retired from music.

In 1960, she suffered from a stroke, which later confined her to a wheelchair. She suffered another stroke, later, and could no longer survive on her Social Security income. Many magazines wrote about her and her current situation, and readers sent money to help her. In 1973, on August 6th, she suffered from another stroke and passed away. She’s buried at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery, in Walls, DeSoto County, Mississippi.

The front of her headstone reads: “Lizzie ‘Kid’ Douglas Lawlers aka Memphis Minnie”. On the back, it reads, “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.”

Minnie was known for being an independent woman and a professional. She presented herself as ladylike and gentle, but could be aggressive whenever she needed to be and wasn’t shy about fighting. Blues musician Johnny Shines said that “Any men fool with her she’d go for them right away. She didn’t take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket knife, pistol, anything she get her hand on she’d use it”.

She chewed tobacco a lot and always had a cup at hand in case she needed to spit. She wasn’t religious and rarely ever went to church. It’s reported she went once, but the only reason was that she wanted to see a gospel group perform.

Memphis Minnie has been described as “the most popular female country blues singer of all time.” Big Bill Broonzy said she could “pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard.” She was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in 2007.

Her music was deeply personal to her, as most of it was autobiographical. She had a unique finger-picking style and strong vocals. She was one of the first musicians to embrace the steel-string guitar and the electric guitar. She recorded over 200 songs in her career. Her songs have been covered by Jefferson Airplane (“Me and My Chauffeur Blues”), Donovan (“Can I Do It For You”), and, most famously, Led Zeppelin (“When the Levee Breaks”).

A few highlights of her career:

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