As we mentioned last time, blues in the early 1920s was distinguished by the powerful performances and recordings of a number of women blues singers—Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith each contributed her voice to the still-developing sound of the blues. Among them, Memphis Minnie made a name for herself, not only for her gritty, expressive voice but also for her hard-driving guitar. In her teens, she played guitar and sang on the streets in Memphis, and by the 1920s she had earned a name for herself and regularly performed at clubs, parties, and juke joints. She began recording in 1929, after a Columbia Records talent scout discovered her playing at a Beale street barbershop.
Minnie was one of the few early blues women with continued success all the way through into the 1950s. This was perhaps, in part, because she adapted fluidly to changing tastes and trends—she shifted her style from early down-home country blues to urban blues without losing her distinctive sound. That time of transition was hard on female blues musicians, and after the 1930s women were encouraged to take up popular music and show tunes. In Abbeville’s Nothing But the Blues, Mary Katherine Aldin describes the difficulties women faced in the blues industry:
They were “kept in their place” both personally and professionally, and with rare exceptions stayed that way until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe make it okay for their sisters to be tough, outspoken, and play a mean lead guitar.
Memphis Minnie broke away from gender stereotypes, and she kept women’s role in the blues alive long after men came to control the genre; she also paved the way for future generations of women blues artists and set an example for women working in any male-dominated industry. Her life and work serve as a challenge and an inspiration to us today.