Classic Music Review: The Essential Recordings by Memphis Minnie

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If you’re into role models, you can’t find a better one. She can play, sing, write, drink you under the table and she knows what to do with a man. Click to buy.

With the publication of the biographical study Woman with Guitar in the early 90’s, Memphis Minnie became a feminist cause celèbre. The sheer strength of her character and her insistence on playing, drinking and gambling with the boys thrilled feminists desperately in search of strong-woman role models.

Before I go off on my typical review-opening rant, I want to say that Memphis Minnie would serve as a great role model in many ways, but I have to confess I’m not a big fan of role-modeling. Putting aside that proviso, I think the feminist movement has a pathetic track record when it comes to role models, because as far as I can tell, the women they hold up as paragons are just guys without penises. Broads like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel have only proven that women can be just as obtuse, limited, conventional, power-hungry and unimaginative as men. None of the so-called feminist role models challenge the assumptions of the current system, none argue for tearing it down and starting from scratch, and none show an ounce of the emotional intelligence that science has proven a distinct advantage of our gender. And as much as feminists squawk whenever a woman is branded a slut because of her desire to avoid pregnancy through one means or another, the feminist movement is as dry and sexless as a 90-year old spinster living in a house permanently buried under twelve feet of snow and ice. Nobody considers Hillary or Angela their idea of a good time. The women’s movement has become a massive repackaging effort—a pathetic attempt to try to sell the public on the notion that women can be as tough, as rational, as phony and as full of shit as their male counterparts.

I am fucking ashamed of my wimp-ass gender. The feminist view of the struggle is identical to that of The Jeffersons—women should have their piece of the pie, too. Feminists want women to be equal to men; I want women to be better than men. Why work your ass off to achieve the status quo? Can’t we do better than that?

End of rant.

Paul and Beth Garon, authors of Woman with Guitar, are feminist-socialists who attempt to interpret Minnie through a combination of Marxism and modern surrealism. While at times their analyses are interesting, and Paul Garon’s knowledge of blues is unquestionably impressive, the duo’s obsession with the surrealist connection often feels like they’re trying way too hard to connect Minnie to Magritte. What is really irritating is that while they acknowledge Minnie’s tremendous sexual appetite, they write about sex like feminist-Marxist clinicians, a tendency common in feminist writings. In commenting on the intensely erotic song “Bumble Bee,” they write:

But male singers also use stinging sex imagery to describe their lovers. If the “pain” in sex can be a function of male domination, how can we explain the male singers’ description of their female lovers in the same terms? Is not the pain actually located within the racist and sexist structures of human relationships? It is, of course, but we do not interact with “structures” themselves, but rather through our interactions with others. While the pain of erotic relations is embedded in the social structure, for the woman it is located and manifest in male domination, in the male demand and act. For the male singer, the pain is located in the female partner and the erotic act.

Getting hot? Didn’t think so. I had no idea that when I engage my partner in “interactions” and take a crop to her ass that I am merely acting out behavior that is embedded in the social structure, and that though I may pass myself off as a dominant woman, I am simply expressing male domination envy. Of course!

Well, fuck that shit. I’m not going to sterilize one of the most powerful erotic singers of all time. Memphis Minnie sung about fucking, not “interactions,” and her songs were grounded in life experience, not abstract social structures. She knew from early childhood that she didn’t want to work in the fields and ran away from home at the ripe old age of thirteen. She toured with the circus, busked on Beale Street, worked as a hooker and over the decades built a catalog that ranks with the best blues artists in history. Minnie could drink anyone under the table, chewed tobacco in her early years and partied like there was no tomorrow. A beautiful woman, she took pride in her beauty and the power it gave her, always making sure she was well-dressed and ready for any occasion. And though surrounded by men who grew up expecting blind subservience from their women, Minnie never let anyone fuck with her, especially aggressive types. “That woman was tougher than a man,” said Homesick James in Woman with Guitar. “No man was strong enough to mess with her.”

My kind of gal!

The best way to experience Memphis Minnie is not through the pages of a book or through modern feminist reinterpretations of a black woman’s experience in the early 20th century, but by listening to her music, where her command, her confidence and her unabashed eroticism is on full display. The Essential Recordings is a great listening experience, a set of forty of Minnie’s original compositions and collaborations from 1929 through the 40’s. Though she was often second-billed on the records due to the sexist norms of the time, she dominates the proceedings with the power of her voice and her guitar-picking mastery. Instead of my typical track-by-track approach, I’m going to focus on the “essentials of the essentials,” the songs that best demonstrate Minnie’s memorable personality and her undeniable talent in music and lyrics.

“Bumble Bee”: The version included in this collection is the 1929 Columbia version, from her first recording session with second hubby Kansas Joe. As the Garons point out, Minnie’s delivery is off and her guitar rather clunky, and it’s apparent that she felt the same way, for she re-recorded the song several times. The bumble bee is one of several euphemisms Minnie used for horny males and penises, often borrowing imagery from the animal kingdom. While the Garons engage in an elaborate interpretation of the symbol (that Minnie is making fun of the male obsession with penis size; or mocking the male belief that women can’t live without those big dicks), the lyrics contradict their hypotheses several times over. Why would she sing “it got me to the place, hate to see my bumble bee leave home” if she wasn’t getting any satisfaction from a hard one?

Give feminists an inch, they’ll call it a phallic symbol.

What I hear and read is a woman who knows how to handle a man and get them to perform exactly to her specifications. She also knows that when a man is a bad mood it’s because he needs to rebalance his testosterone levels with a good fuck:

I can’t stand to hear him, buzz, buzz, buzz
Come in, bumble bee, want you to stop your fuss.
You’s my bumble bee and you know your stuff.
Oh, sting me bumble bee, until I get enough.

Note that the act is for the woman’s satisfaction, not the man’s: “until I get enough.” Yes, you have to flatter men and tell them what great fucks they are so the brains in their penises keep the blood flow going, but that’s the strategy of a dominant woman who’s in the mood for a hard cock and knows how to get it done, not a weak woman submitting to oppression. Minnie’s sexual songs and her relationships with her husbands show clearly that she knew how to navigate in a world where a woman had to pay tribute to the myth that men are in charge, but understood that men are often terribly insecure people burdened with the unreasonable and absurd expectation that they are supposed to be the superior sex. Minnie wants a man who can get her “to the place,” the experience of deep orgasm, but unfortunately, as she sings in another version of “Bumble Bee,” it’s a rare occurrence: “He had me to the place once, I wish to God that I could die.”

Once? Pretty common, I’m afraid. Too many guys are pounders who don’t understand the clitoris.

“Frankie Jean”: Not all Minnie’s songs were about sex. “Frankie Jean” is a talking blues about a horse Minnie loves to ride but who keeps running away. She asks for her papa’s advice on how to get her horse back, and he tells her “You must whistle when you want your horse to come to you.” This is a cue for Minnie to whistle away on two separate verses, and she’s a great whistler. She also shows she’s one hell of a guitar player, breaking the bouncy rhythm of the song to use her guitar to replicate the rhythm of a horse trotting. In the last verse, Minnie indulges in the fantasy of turning Frankie Jean into a race horse and betting $5000 on her in a display of female bravado. The Garons go nuts on their interpretation of this one, calling up surrealist paintings and the image of the woman on the horse as a metaphorical statement of liberation. I really don’t think Minnie needed anyone to tell her that she was liberated, and I don’t think she gave a damn about liberating anyone but herself—her personal struggle for recognition took a lot of energy all by itself.

“Nothing in Rambling”: This is the one that got me hooked on Minnie. Back in my wayward, slutty college days, when penises and pussies replaced music on my priority list, my dad gave me a CD called Legends of the Blues, Volume 1 for Christmas, hoping to rekindle my interest in music. It’s a wonderful sampler of many of the great early blues artists: Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Charley Patton, Son House—they’re all there. But the voice that grabbed me was Memphis Minnie’s, because she was singing metaphorically about my life experience at the time.

I was seriously fucking rambling. I must have fucked over 100 people during my college years, men and women aged 18-60, all the races and several ethnic varieties of horny humans in one-on-ones and groups. I lived one charmed life, never falling victim to VD, herpes, AIDS or even a yeast infection. Now that I am a virtual sexual paranoid, requiring background checks and medical tests before I even think of getting down with a new partner, I look back with amazement and gratitude that I made it through as clean as a whistle.

Minnie’s song has nothing to do with my kind of rambling, but folkloric rambling—the life of the hobo, the itinerant musician, the people hitting the road to find a better life somewhere else. It’s one of Minnie’s richest and most dramatic numbers, with cinema verité imagery. In the first two verses, when the folks she encounters on her travels tell her “Ain’t nothing in rambling/Either run around,”  her response is the ironic and playful “Well, I’ll believe I’ll marry/Oooo, wooo, Lord, and settle down.” The tone belies the lyrics, as if Minnie thinks the idea of setting down is nonsense. However, the remaining verses present stronger arguments for exiting the life on the road:

I was walking through the alley with my hand in my coat
The police start to shoot me, thought it was something I stole
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .

Racial profiling is a modern catchword for a time-honored practice of police everywhere, and this apparently describes a real event that took place in Minnie’s travels (and I doubt it was a singular event). In the next verse, Minnie expands her social criticism to the unalleviated suffering of the migrants of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression:

The peoples on the highway is walking and crying,
Some is starving, some is dying.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .

The last verse deepens the irony inherent in rambling: it’s a gamble, but when you’re poor, hungry and hopeless, what have you got to lose?

You may go to Hollywood and try to get on the screen,
But I’m gonna stay right here and eat these old charity beans.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .

As a black woman in the 1930’s, she had no chance of getting on the big screen in any meaningful way, and a much greater chance of getting shot down by the cops, beaten by johns or starving in the icy cold of a Midwestern winter. Given the evidence in her biography, she found a practical middle ground: take the hubby along with you when you ramble. What’s important here is Minnie’s remarkable self-awareness; she knows the risks, but goddamn if she’s going to let a little risk get in the way of getting what she wants.

“Jockey Man Blues”: A riff on Kokomo Arnold’s version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues” (later recorded by The Kinks), Minnie sings of her jockey in the same way she sang of her bumble bee: “My pretty papa’s a jockey and he sure don’t ride for fun.” The Garons resurrect their miniaturization-of-men interpretation, and fall flat once again. If true, then why does Minnie, waking up to an empty bed, sing “I’ve got the blues this morning, just as low as I can be” and later, “”Lord, since you went away and left me, I don’t want nobody else?” It’s more likely that Minnie’s deflation was simply a part of the experience of a dominant woman. Look. A dominant woman always has to deal with the cultural reality that males are ashamed to be seen as submissive, so they tend to run and hide from her to hide the culturally-induced shame they feel as a by-product of submission. That trash-talking macho shit they hear from the boys always interferes with the male desire to submit (hence the epithet “pussy-whipped”), and even when a man finds submission a deeply satisfying and transformative experience, it’s a better-than even chance that they’ll eventually slip away to avoid having to accept who they are. Minnie sings of the vanishing man in several of the songs on this collection, and since I and every other dominant woman I know have experienced the disappearing act, it is definitely real, but also one of those taboo subjects that languish in obscurity.

Someone should write a book . . .

“If You See My Rooster”: The Garons try to turn this song about sex into a Marxist message about labor and production. Shit, did those people ever fuck? This is a rollicking number repeating the disappearing man theme, with Minnie playing hot guitar over Black Bob’s steady piano. This one’s great for getting in the mood, or if you’re me, getting more in the mood than usual. I should acknowledge here that one reason why the disappearing man theme appears frequently in Minnie’s work is that the phenomenon was much more common in the African-American community, as there were other socio-economic factors in play in that culture.

“Me and My Chauffeur Blues”: Minnie’s biggest hit, recorded in 1941 is an expression of a very logical fantasy: if men are such wimps that they can’t take a strong woman, maybe it’s better to hire them when you need them. Her guitar work here is superb, with marvelous fills and sliding chords that hint at the sound of a steel guitar. Minnie’s voice soars on this number, as she eschews the growl and just belts it out with the energy of someone who knows she’s written one hell of a song.

“Black Cat Blues”: Minnie gives us another strong, confident vocal about a black cat who starts out as a rat-catcher and later becomes a euphemism for a sexual partner. Her lead solo is the centerpiece here, a nimble piece of work with a rocking feel very reminiscent of the rhythms Buddy Holly would create a couple of decades later. All of Minnie’s songs are intensely rhythmic, but this one rocks a bit more noticeably . . . as do my hips after about five seconds.

“Ice Man (Come on Up)”: Goddamn, I wish I would have written this song. This is so me! The most unapologetically explicit song in the collection, this is the theme song par excellence for the perpetually horny, dominant female.

I got an ice man in the spring, a coal man in the fall:
All I need now to get my ashes hauled.
I’m gonna strut my stuff,
I’m gonna strut my stuff,
I’m gonna strut my stuff everywhere I go . . .

Ice man, ice man, come on up
You know my box is hard to fill up
I’m gonna strut my stuff (2)
I’m gonna strut my stuff everywhere I go . . .

Minnie also knew how to set clear, inviolable boundaries for her lovers:

Ice man, ice man, come and don’t get rough
If you start anything I’m gonna strut my stuff.

Baby, that’s a woman who knows how to put a man in his place! The only problem with making this my theme song is I’ll never be as good as Memphis Minnie on the guitar. Her bass rhythm and picking are way out of my league, and I can fully understand how she could just sit there, play the guitar and blow away all those big bad blues guys in cutting sessions.

Excuse me. I have so much sexual tension right now that I have to go strut my stuff for a while. I’ll pick this up . . . tomorrow.

“When the Levee Breaks”: Minnie’s great early recordings were largely performed in tandem with second hubby Kansas Joe McCoy (she would later record with his brother and a third husband, Little Son Joe). This piece from Minnie and Kansas Joe’s first session is sung by Joe, and it’s a marvelous and moving song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive flood in U. S. history. Joe has an everyman’s voice and the life experience that gives his performance an authenticity completely missing from the overwrought Led Zeppelin version. The words are so simple, but so touching in their personification of nature and the personalization of tragedy:

If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break (2)
And the water gonna come and have no place to stay.

If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break (2)
And all these people’ll have no place to stay.

The picking speed accelerates in a few spots to mirror the rising levee and the rising anxiety, a superb example of Minnie using everything at her disposal to accentuate the story line. But as hard as Joe works to keep the water away, there’s no hope except that which comes from moving on to a new life once the old one is destroyed.

“Hoodoo Lady”: One of Minnie’s most spirited and heartfelt vocals, her encounter with a hoodoo practitioner is a fascinating look into the powers of the female shaman, witch or whatever you choose to call those who dabble in the dark arts. Minnie’s more than willing to have the Hoodoo Lady work some magic to improve her odds at craps, or to help her find that vanishing man, but she knows that women—spiritually imbued or not—can be spiteful and competitive:

Hoodoo lady, you can turn water into wine
I been wondering where you’ve been all this time.
I’m setting here, broke, and I ain’t got a dime.
You ought to put something in these dukes of mine
But don’t put that thing on me,
Don’t put that thing on me (2),
‘Cause I’m going back to Tennessee

Her spoken word vocalizations—“Boy, you better watch it ’cause she’s tricky” and “Boys, I’m scared of her”—are spoken with no-bullshit intensity by a woman who knows how nasty other women can be. While men are boorishly competitive, relying largely on physical displays to resolve their conflicts, many women who never resolved their self-esteem issues compete in a sneaky, manipulative manner, using the learned helplessness of “feminine guile” to try to make up for a relative lack of physical strength. Echoing the twisted nature of many a female in a dysfunctional society, Minnie really bends those guitar strings in the instrumental passage, pushing those blue notes to maximum dissonance.

“In My Girlish Days”: Here Minnie steps back from her power position and assumes the role of wayward woman engaging in reflection over the life events that shaped her. This song has the intimate feel of sitting with the woman on the front porch drinking iced tea, or lolling around the kitchen table while waiting for the biscuits to come out of the oven while she tells her story. The first two verses describe how she fell prey to her “girlish ways”:

Late hours at night, trying to play my hand,
Through my window, out stepped a man.
I didn’t know no better,
Oh boys,
In my girlish days.

My mama cried, Papa did too,
Ooh, daughter, look what a shame on you.

She’s driven from home by the shame of unwanted pregnancy, has no money for the train and has to “hit the highway” and hitchhike her way through the cold winter of 1917. The beauty of the song is in the complete rejection of the conventional notion that once a girl has ruined herself, life is over for her. In the last verse, the woman rewrites the traditional narrative:

All of my playmates is not surprised,
I had to travel ‘fore I got wise.
I found out better,
And I still got
My girlish ways.

The woman is now in a space where she can make better and more selective choices about love partners, but damned if she’s going to deny her sexuality and submit to Christian shaming. This is one of those songs that is “metaphorically autobiographical,” because while the events Minnie describes don’t sync with her personal timeline, she learned a lot on the road, and despite the usual “mistakes,” she never denied her passions. The guitar duet here is one of the best on the record, but in this song, it’s the message that matters.

“New Dirty Dozen”: The Garons quote two authors on the meaning of the phrase “dirty dozens;” we’ll go with Audre Lorde’s: “A black game of supposedly friendly rivalry and name-calling; in reality, a crucial exercise in learning how to absorb verbal abuse without faltering.”

Oh. Trash-talking. Why the fuck didn’t you say so?

The first and most noticeable thing about this song is that Minnie’s guitar run sounds very much like the opening to CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Funny, I don’t remember Stills giving Minnie any credit, nor the author of the song on which Minnie’s tune is based, a piano-player named Speckled Red. Saving the issue of white boy plagiarism for another day, Minnie’s adaptation shows both her exceptionally advanced guitar skills and a lyrical talent that was far ahead of her competitors:

Come all of you women’s oughta be in the can.
Out on the corner stopping every man,
Hollering, “Soap is a nickel and the towel is free,
I’m pigmeat, pappy, now who wants me?”
You’s an old mistreater, robber and a cheater,
Slip you in the dozen, your papa and your cousin
Your mama do the lordly lord.

The last three lines are Speckled Red’s, but the first four are trash-talking Minnie. Apparently she didn’t appreciate the value of prostitutes as a way to reduce male sexual tension so guys won’t go around raping women; for Minnie, women were not sisters, but evil competitors.

“Can I Do It for You?”: My favorite duet with Kansas Joe is a call-and-response number where Joe offers Minnie different enticements in each verse and Minnie essentially tells him to piss off after each one.

KJ:
Buy your shoes and clothes, buy your shoes and clothes
Buy your shoes and clothes, if I can do something to you
Hear me saying, I want to do something to you

MM:
I don’t want no shoes and clothes, I don’t want no shoes and clothes
I don’t want nothing in the world you got, and can’t do nothing for me
Hear me saying, you can’t do nothing for me

KJ:
I’ll buy you a Chevrolet, I’ll buy you a Chevrolet
Buy you a Chevrolet, if I can do something to you
Hear me saying, I want to do something to you

MM:
I don’t want no Chevrolet, I don’t want no Chevrolet
I don’t want nothing in the world you got, and you can’t do nothing for me
Hear me saying, you can’t do nothing for me

Minnie eventually relents, settling for a Ford sedan, but even then she tells him “I don’t want nothing in the world you got.” What I love is Kansas Joe’s periodic exclamations as Minnie rejects his attempts to bribe her into giving him access to her pussy: “What kind of woman is this?”

She’s a woman who owns her fucking body and soul, you idiot!

“Dirty Mother for You”: It doesn’t take much effort to translate that title into the uncensored “Dirty Mother Fucker,” and most of the motherfuckers Minnie sings about are men in male-dominated professions of authority: doctors, judges and cops:

I ain’t no doctor, but I’m the doctor’s wife,
You better come to me if you want to save your life.
He’s a dirty mother fuyer,
He don’t mean no good.
He got drunk this morning, tore up the neighborhood.

In the last round, Minnie returns to her motherfucker archetype, the vanishing man: “You done squeezed my lemon, now you done broke and run.” The song predates the recording of Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” by a couple of years, so it’s likely that his famous line, “I want you to squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg,” reveals a Memphis Minnie influence. Another couplet, “I want you to come here, baby, come here quick/He done give me something ’bout to make me sick” would find a home in Red Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues,” later semi-popularized by Dave Van Ronk. Tell me this broad didn’t have influence!

“He’s in the Ring”: Two songs in the collection are devoted to Joe Louis, a hero of staggering proportions for African-Americans in the 30’s and 40’s. One of Minnie’s most intense vocals, you can hear how deeply she identifies with the fighter in her growls and passion-loaded offbeat phrasing. Long-time accompanist Black Bob makes his first appearance here, and I have to say that while Minnie’s guitar was pretty much all she needed, the piano deepens her rhythms and works very well with her voice. “Dirty Mother for You” has a fabulous piano piece (played by someone she calls “Dennis” on the record), and Black Bob’s piano on this song calls up pictures of smoky saloons and good times.

There are many more memorable songs in this collection, and I wish I had the time and the proper venue to write about them all. “Plymouth Rock Blues,” “Black Rat Swing,” “Reachin’ Pete,” “What’s the Matter with the Mill?,” “Where Is My Good Man” and “Chickasaw Train Blues” are all exceptionally strong pieces, and I could have lengthened that list by adding a dozen more. I hope that my limited sample encourages readers to explore one of the most talented women in music history, a woman who wrote some of the most striking poetry in the long tradition of the blues and who had that unique combination of courage and self-awareness that enabled her to build a successful and influential life despite unimaginably difficult obstacles.

That Minnie turned herself into an expert on the dynamics of sex and power makes her music all the sweeter for me. Damn, I would have loved to drink with this broad!

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