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Memphis Minnie

Why has this musician who recorded over two hundred sides and was well-loved by the Black blues audiences of the '30s and '40s been comparatively ignored by later audiences? Perhaps it's because Memphis Minnie doesn't fit the myth of the young, tragic, haunted blues singer and she is too complex of a character to be easily marketed. She shaped a life very different from the limited possibilities offered to the women of her time. She lived a long life, was at her best in middle age, and would spit tobacco wearing a chiffon ball gown. Memphis Minnie's music remained popular over two decades because it was lyrically and instrumentally in tune with the lives of Black Americans. It remains vital and influential today because of her inventive, rhythmic guitar playing and her songs, which capture people and events and bring them to life across the years. In terms of her influence on the development of blues, she was an important player in the Chicago clubs during the '40s when musicians like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rodgers and Johnny Shines, were coming up.

Lizzie Douglas was born before the turn of the century in Algiers, Louisiana, close to New Orleans. By the year 1910 she had learned to play the banjo and guitar and had run away from home and joined the Ringling Brothers circus, where she performed in tent shows throughout the Southern states into the 1920s. By 1929, Douglas had married another guitar-player, Joe McCoy, who was a good singer and guitarist. Minnie and Joe began a steady series of recording dates in New York, and Memphis, first for Columbia, later for Vocalion, Decca, Okeh and Bluebird. Kansas Joe,and Minnie were guitarists of equal ability, and the interplay of their instruments is like a great conversation: with both of them switching between treble and bass. Minnie was quick to embrace the latest technologies in order to be heard above the crowds She was one of the first blues players to use a National in 1929, and to play an electric wood body National and various electric guitars in the '40s and '50s.

Joe and Minnie based themselves in Chicago throughout the early '30s, playing clubs like the DeLisa and the Music Box, recording both together and separately. Their marriage and musical partnership fell apart in the mid-thirties, around the same time Minnie became increasingly featured as a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter.

In 1939 she married Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars, a Memphis based guitarist who was her partner for the next 23 years. Her recordings with Son Joe are in duet style, with piano, bass or drums added on some sessions. She moved to Chicago in the early forties and went in partnership with famed blues musician St. Louis Jimmy with whom she operated a blues club in Indianapolis, Indiana. She did sessions for Vocalion and Okeh and some of her better known records were " Bumble Bee," "Black Cat Blues," "Me And My Chauffeur," and "In My Girlish Days."

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Leonie Evans
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