Pat Blythe: The Women of Blues



Anyone heard of Memphis Minnie? How about Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Hegamin, Julia Lee or Maxine Sullivan? Me neither. How about Bessie Smith, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Big Momma Thornton, Dinah Washington or even Janis Joplin. The latter are a smattering of the ladies most frequently thought of or mentioned when we think of great female blues singers….the former, not so much.

Now I have a deep, abiding passion for music….always have. The compelling moment to put “pen to paper” or “fingers to keyboard” was triggered by my CD collection called Women and Songs. …and so I embarked on this journey, beginning with Songs which led to The Women of Rock and now The Women of Blues. It’s this passion that continues to steer me forward. I have no idea where this series will take me, what discoveries will be made, or how deep the dive into the women of blues will be. It’s unfamiliar territory but a journey I am excited to begin.

alberta the blues

Before I go any further I want to make this abundantly clear — this series is not meant to be a history of the blues, nor is it a dissection of the blues genre. I don’t profess to be an authority. I am sure there have been many spirited discussions, theories posed and histories written throughout the years on this very subject. However, I am neither a musician nor a musicologist. I write about the music that peaks my curiosity….makes me think, reflect, explore, discover, learn, dance….and the people that create it, sing it, play it, feel it and live it.

My husband had the pleasure of touring with The Lydia Taylor Band in the southern U.S. during the summer months in the early 1980’s. When he got home, the first thing he said to me was, “if you’ve ever experienced a hot, muggy night in Louisiana, when the temperature cools down to 110, and just thinking makes you sweat, you will completely understand where the blues comes from.”

….which always brings to mind one of my favourites…. Alannah Myles – Black Velvet….in the middle of a dry spell….

While researching Maria Muldaur for the Woman and Songs series, Memphis Minnie’s name caught my eye. Muldaur had just released her 40th album, dedicating it to Minnie. Curiosity got the better of me so I’ve hit the trail to discover as much as possible about the many, many the female voices that have been singing the blues down through the ages, and those who continue to carry the blues torch today.

Muldaur tribute to MM

It’s not possible to cover every female blues singer or this series would go on ad infinitum. I will try and select a wide variety, some popular, some obscure, some still with us, and others no longer here, that all have lent their voices, their hearts, their souls, their lives to this music we call The Blues. …and I will begin with name that initially sparked this fire….

Memphis Minnie….

“Minnie’s voice is rarely heard, even today: it is the voice of an independent, childless woman, an artist who never puts up with abuse, and who managed to find pleasure while living through tough times.”

MM Large

Born in 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana, Lizzie Douglas was the eldest of thirteen children. Given the nickname “Kid” (she hated the name Lizzie), by the age of eleven she could play both the guitar and banjo. The only jobs for black women were limited to domestics service or farm work, both demanding hard physical labour and subservience for low pay. Minnie deplored the life of physical labour  and was determined to try life with the “starvation box”, as the guitar was then dubbed by Roosevelt Sykes, himself a successful blues piano player who was known for his “rollicking, thundering boogie woogie.” She began to play on the streets of the towns surrounding Walls soon after getting her first guitar.


Minnie left home at the age of 13 and headed to Memphis, Tennessee  to live on Beale Street, spending most of her teenage years performing on street corners with various jug bands and string groups under the name “Kid Douglas”. Her sidewalk performances led her to a job with the Ringling Brothers and she toured with them from 1916 to 1920, slowly becoming a polished performer.

By 1920, when Minnie returned to Beale Street, it was becoming a prosperous area, with an almost carnival-like character. The following decade would introduce gambling, drinking, prostitution, murder and voodoo which flourished alongside nightclubs, theatres, restaurants, stores and hot music….expensively dressed patrons mingling with the down-and-out. Minnie continued to make money by singing and playing guitar, sometimes turning to prostitution as a last resort but only under desperate circumstances. Minnie apparently received $12 for her services, an outrageous fee for the time.


Beale Street Hotel – the name on the sign captured my attention

Beale Street 1920

Beale Street 1920

The mood and time were ripe for a new type of music. “The Blues and Gospel spirituals were rooted in the cotton fields of America and incorporated the harmonies and rhythms of Africa. That, combined with the music of the church, helped form a completely American (style) of music. The juke joints and honkytonks of Beale had acquired a new sound, and the Blues was born.

Joe McCoy and MM

Minnie and her first husband, Kansas Joe McCoy, were discovered singing outside a barber shop by a talent scout from Columbia and were soon whisked away to New York. Dubbed Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie by a Columbia A&R man, the couple recorded for the Columbia, and later, Decca and Vocalian labels. They released the single When The Levee Breaks backed with That Will Be Alright with McCoy on all the vocals. A short while later they released FriscoTown as a duet and Going Back to Texas on which Minnie sang alone.

When the Levee Breaks — Memphis Minnie/Joe McCoy/John Roach on guitar/vocal; Ken Jarvis on bass, banjo, guitar

The couple also recorded the song, Bumble Bee which led to a two-year recording contract with Vocalian before McCoy and Minnie decided to move to Chicago. Bumble Bee became one of Minnie’s most popular songs and she eventually recorded five different versions for various labels.

Memphis Minnie – Bumble Bee (1930)

McCoy and Minnie settled in Chicago in 1930 and it didn’t take them long to become part of the local blues scene, introducing country blues to the city folk. They continued to record songs together and individually for Decca another four years. The two-part single, You Got To Move (You Ain’t Got To Move) was the last one they would record together. In 1934, Minnie and McCoy divorced and the following year Minnie teamed up with Lester Melrose, the “single, the most powerful and influential executive in the blues industry during the 1930s and 1940s.” (See note below on the “Melrose Sound”)

Melrose Pic

L-R: Ernest ‘Little Son Joe’ Lawlars, Big Bill Broonzy, Lester Melrose, Roosevelt Sykes, St.Louis Jimmy Oden. Front: Washboard Sam

Minnie now began to experiment with different styles and sounds and was one of the first blues artists to play an electric guitar. She used a National in 1929 and played an electric wood body National and various other electric guitars in 40s and 50s. She was eager to embrace new technologies that would allow her to be “heard above the crowd.” The poet Langston Hughes described Minnie’s voice as “hard and strong”, and described the sound of her electric guitar as “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling unit.”

MM electric guitar

Minnie’s pride and joy

During the 1930’s, Minnie recorded for several different labels — Bluebird (under the name Texas Tessie), Vocalian and Decca, all while also touring the south extensively.

Memphis Minnie poster

With her new husband, Ernest Lawlars, (aka Little Son Joe), Minnie began recording and releasing material for Okeh Records in the 1940’s, including her biggest hit Me And My Chauffeur Blues in 1941. Minnie recorded Broken Heart and re-recorded Me and My Chauffeur Blues in 1952 for the then two-month-old Chess label. In 1953 she released her last commercial recordings, Kissing in the Dark (a song about STDs) and World of Trouble, on the JOB label.

Texas Tessie – You Wrecked My Happy Home

Memphis Minnie – Me And My Chauffeur Blues

Memphis Minnie – Kissing in the Dark

Later Years….

By the mid-1940’s club were hiring newer artists at much lower rates and record companies began dropping blues artists….including Minnie. She moved around, living in Detroit and Indianapolis before returning to Chicago in the early 1950’s. However, public interest in her music was declining and her health was becoming an issue so Minnie retired from music and moved back to Memphis with Lawlars. Once in a while she would make a guest appearance on one of the radio stations to encourage young blues musicians. A full length biography about Minnie called Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie Blues, written by Paul and Beth Garon, was published in 1998 with a second edition published in 2014. In it they wrote, “She never laid her guitar down, until she could literally no longer pick it up.” 

Minnie suffered her first stroke in 1960 which put her in a wheelchair. The following year Lawlars died and Minnie suffered a second stroke not long after. No longer able to survive on social security, magazines wrote of her plight and readers began sending money. Minnie was moved into the Jeil Nursing Home in Memphis where she passed away after suffering a third stroke in 1973.

Minnie is buried in the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in DeSoto County, MIssissippi. In 1996, Bonnie Raitt paid for a headstone which was erected by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. Thirty-four family members were in attendance at the ceremony, including Minnie’s sister Daisy.


The Legacy and Influence….

Minnie was a young black women living in extremely harsh and dangerous times. Surviving on the street and fending for herself at such a young age, she grew into a strong, tough, fiercely proud, independent woman, developing a formidable reputation as a woman who could take care of herself. She was a woman who would spit tobacco wearing a chiffon ball gown. Blues guitarist/vocalist Johnny Shines is quoted as saying in the book Woman With Guitar, “Any men fool with her, she’d go for them right away…she didn’t take no foolishness off them…y’know Memphis Minnie used to be a hell-cat.”

Memphis-Minnie standing

Minnie was fortunate that Beale Street, in the 1920s, was one of the first places in the U.S. where women could perform in public. She survived and thrived in a genre dominated by men, and, unlike the majority of female blues singers at that time, wrote her own songs and played guitar. For almost 30 years, Memphis Minnie was one of the most influential blues artists in the United States. She captured people and events, bringing them to life with her lyrics and guitar playing.

Classics such as Bumble Bee, Hoodoo Lady and I Want Something For You have cemented her place in blues history. Her catalogue of music included country blues, urban blues, Chicago blues, the Melrose Sound and postwar blues. Big Bill Broonzy said that she could “pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard.”  Big Mama Thornton, Jo Ann Kelly and Erin Harpe were all influenced by Minnie.  Minnie was also “an important player in the Chicago clubs during the 40’s when musicians like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rodgers and Johnny Shines were coming up.” Her music even captured the imaginations of John Lee Hooker and the Rolling Stones. In 1980, Memphis Minnie was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

(Note: Melrose Sound — Named after Lester Franklin Melrose, who, in many ways, can be considered a founder of the Chicago Blues, although he favored acoustic over electric performances. Most of his recordings were made with a small group of session musicians and had a similar sound overall. Muddy Waters, who was rejected when he auditioned for Melrose, called it “sweet jazz”. The music was a mixture of black blues and vaudeville styles and material with newer swing rhythms. Melrose’s chief contribution was to establish a sound with full band arrangements, ensemble playing and a rhythm section, which appealed to the increasingly urbanised black record-buying audience, and prefigured the electric blues and R&B of the late 1940s and the small group sound that became dominant in rock and roll)

Memphis Minnie – Hoodoo Lady

Jefferson Airplane recorded Me and My Chauffeur Blues on their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off  (Signe Anderson was lead vocalist); Led Zeppelin, a band heavily influenced by the blues, covered When the Levee Breaks (although the lyrics were altered slightly and the song has a different melody) on their fourth album released in 1971, and in 1990, Mazzy Star covered I’m Salin’ on their debut album She Hangs Brightly.

When the Levee Breaks – Led Zeppelin

Jefferson Airplane – Chauffeur Blues

Mazzy Star – I’m Sailin’


The inscription on Minnie’s headstone 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.”


Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues by Paul and Beth Garon; Memphis Minnie: Her Story by Del Ray; Guitar Noise; Memphis Minnie Biography – Sonya Shelton; Net Industries; Wikipedia; YouTube; Historic Memphis Website; The Blues Encyclopedia; Maria Muldaur bio.


Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at:

dbawis-buttonIn “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much  of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda Little Red-headed dancing girland the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts,  Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: