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6 December 2017


Memphis Minnie was quite somebody. She could play the guitar and sing well. But she was also a composer of some fine early jazz tunes.

Her real name was Lizzie Douglas and she was born in the New Orleans suburb of Algiers in 1897. Her family later lived in Tennessee. As a child, she mastered the banjo and guitar. She took to busking in the Beale Street, Memphis, area when she was only a teenager, and she also toured with a circus. It was a hard life. She became a tough, street-wise young woman; and this toughness was reflected later in her singing and playing.

She married three times. Her second husband, Joe McCoy, was a fellow busker. They were talent-spotted and went on to make records for both Columbia and Vocalion.
It was at that time (when she was already more than 30 years old) that the publicists decided to call her 'Memphis Minnie' and the name stuck. (Similarly, her husband was given the name 'Kansas Joe'.) Between 1929 and 1934, they recorded about 30 songs, some of them more than once. After they divorced, she recorded many more, sometimes with Kansas Joe's brother and later with her third husband - Ernest Lawler ('Little Son Joe'). At this time she was mainly based in Chicago.

Minnie recorded more than 130 songs in total, several of them composed by herself. Among songs Minnie recorded that have influenced and been revived by the young New Orleans musicians of the 21st Century are: Bumble Bee, Frisco Town, I'm Goin' Back Home, Me and My Chauffeur, Ice Man, Tricks Ain't Walkin' No More, What's The Matter With the Mill?, New Dirty Dozen, and When the Levee Breaks. 

Minnie is known to have been the composer of the following songs that she recorded: Black Cat Blues, You Caught Me Wrong Again, Down in the Alley, Good Biscuits, Good Morning, Has Anyone Seen My Man?, Hoodoo Lady, I Hate To See The Sun Go Down, I'm a Bad Luck Woman, I've Been Treated Wrong, Ice Man, If You See My Rooster, Keep On Eating, Ma Rainey, Man You Won't Give Me No Money, My Baby Don't Want Me No More, My Butcher Man, My Strange Man, Nothin' In Rambling. Some of the other songs for which she became well known (such as Bumble Bee and  Me and My Chauffeur) were written by McCoy or Lawler.

You can hear Minnie and her third husband (the composer) performing Me and My Chauffeur
by clicking here.
And you can watch one of today's young traditional jazz bands performing the song by clicking here.

Memphis Minnie seems to have been the composer of Frisco Town (a ten-bar blues) in 1929.  She recorded it with her husband Kansas Joe the same year. Its title rapidly changed to Frisco Bound(This a quite different song from the Frisco Bound composed by Sam Powers in 1915.)

Still in 1929, a recording of Frisco Bound was made by James Wiggins and this increased its popularity.

This song also has recently been revived in its ten-bar form by Tuba Skinny:
Click Here.

How does it come to be a ten-bar blues? Well, if you look closely at its structure, you will see it is really a 12-bar blues, but with the first two bars omitted.

Two choruses here:

In another video of Tuba Skinny, the young musicians may be seen performing one of the 12-bar blues written by Minnie's second husband (Joe McCoy). The singer is Erika Lewis. Enjoy especially at 2 mins 20 seconds (and again later) the descending triplets played by the clarinettist (Craig Flory) in his 'solo' chorus. The song is called If You Take Me Back. You can watch it by clicking here.

By the way, my book about Tuba Skinny is now available. If you may be interested, go to the Amazon Website, click on 'Books', and type in 'Tuba Skinny and Shaye Cohn'.