Posts Tagged ‘Memphis Minnie’

Born in 1897 just outside of New Orleans, Minnie was singing on the streets by her early teens.  She may have played electric guitar as early as 1942.  She straddled the between country and city blues.  She died virtually forgotten in a Memphis nursing home in 1977.  Her show consisted of a mix of popular songs, Gershwin, etc. in addition to blues.  Blues players had to be well rounded enough to take requests.


She is, in many ways, the link between pre-War acoustic and post-War electric Chicago blues. She is probably best known today for “When the Levee Breaks” which she wrote with her second husband Kansas Joe.

She was one tough lady – could drink many men under the table and would spit tobacco all while wearing an elegant ball gown. This is probably what it took if you were going to play with the likes of Willie Brown who Minnie worked with down in Mississippi for about a year.

She was an incredible singer and one heck of a guitar player. Willie Moore reportedly called her a “Guitar King.” Minnie played in standard and Open D and Open G tunings. In the early 1930s she got into a cutting contest with Big Bill Broonzy and Minnie walked off with the prize – a bottle of whiskey.

She and Son House were two of the first to “discover” National Resonator guitars.  H.C. Spier used to tell a story of Minnie and Kansas Joe blowing into Jackson, Mississippi after a Chicago recording session. They showed up in a brand new convertible car with the first National Tricone anybody in those parts had ever seen.

By the early 1940s Minnie was working out of Chicago and took to playing a National wood body electric, working with either a drummer or bass and a drums – providing a roadmap for the Chicago blues players that would follow. Because she went electric, Minnie escaped the fate that befell most pre-War players of having to work as a janitor or freezing to death on a street corner. Minnie continued to play in front of audiences until disabled by a stroke.

The year was 1927 and Calvin Coolidge was president. In that year, the Mississippi river valley, and especially the state of Louisiana, suffered the greatest flood in its history.  Memphis Minnie McCoy (born Lizzie Douglas) would have lived through the devastation. Born June 3rd, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana, at the age of 13 she had run away from home. In Memphis, Tennessee she played guitar in nightclubs. Her 1929 song, “When The Levee Breaks” (co-authored with husband Joe), was later recorded by Led Zeppelin and released in 1971.

In May of 1927, at Melville, Louisiana, the levee broke. Men, women, and children scrambled to unbroken sections of the levee.

All last night I sat on the levee and moaned.

The nation had been preoccupied with relative frivolity and had not especially noticed what was happening in the Mississippi Valley. Charles Lindberg’s trans-atlantic flight, for instance, consumed attention. Complained Herbert Hoover, “I sometimes wonder if the people of our country realize just what this calamity is. Do they know that before the flood recedes more than half a million Americans, men, women and children, will have seen their homes swallowed up in the deluge…”

When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.

Economic pain was tremendous. Crops were destroyed and businesses were ruined. This was in 1927, two years before the stock market crash supposedly caused the Great Depression.

Don’t it make you feel bad
When you’re tryin’ to find your way home,
You don’t know which way to go?
If you’re goin’ down South
There ain’t no work to do,
If you’re goin’ North,
There’s Chicago.

Memphis Minnie did move to Chicago, in the 1930s. It was “the city that works,” “the city of the big shoulders.” There, she recorded nearly 200 records. In 1957, she returned to Memphis. Memphis Minnie McCoy passed away on August 6th, 1973.

The 1927 flood covered 15,000 square miles, an area larger than Belgium. It was “a national calamity. Nothing else since the Civil War [was] in its class… Millions of words have been written about the [1927] flood.”