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Classic Americana: Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie publicity photo, circa 1937.
Memphis Minnie publicity photo, circa 1937.courtesy Document Records

by Mike Pengra and Luke Taylor

June 07, 2024

Every Friday around 11 a.m. Central, it’s time for Classic Americana on Radio Heartland. We pull a special track from the archives or from deep in the shelves to spotlight a particular artist or song.

At first blush, Memphis Minnie is a bit mysterious; specifically, her name wasn’t actually Minnie, and she wasn’t originally from Memphis. But one thing is certain: Memphis Minnie was a vital architect of the blues, a talented guitarist and singer, and a prolific songwriter. Among the artists she influenced is Bonnie Raitt.

The artist known as Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in the state of Mississippi in the year 1897. She started learning to play guitar and banjo around the age of 8, and by age 11, she was already performing at parties and community gatherings. When she was 13, Douglas ran away from home to start busking on Beale Street in Memphis. Her talent caught the attention of the Ringling Brothers Circus, who hired her as a company musician, and she toured with them for four years. Returning to Memphis, Douglas met another transplanted Mississippi musician known as Kansas Joe McCoy. The two performed together and eventually married. As a duo, they were discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, and were invited to New York to record. It was at Columbia Records that Lizzie Douglas took the suggested name Memphis Minnie, the sobriquet that she retained for the rest of her career and life. Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy recorded the hit song, “Bumble Bee,” in 1930. In the same year, the duo relocated to Chicago, joining the bourgeoning blues scene in that city.

Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy divorced in 1935, but Minnie continued her career solo, eventually recording more than 200 songs for Columbia Records, Decca Records, and other labels. The 1930s and ‘40s were a particularly fruitful period for Memphis Minnie, and it was in the ‘30s that she recorded “Hoodoo Lady,” a song we’ll hear this week for our Classic Americana pick.

Memphis Minnie remarried in 1939 to musician Earnest Lawlers, better known as Little Son Joe. They recorded together, but the records were released under Memphis Minnie’s name — an appropriate choice given Memphis Minnie’s song lyrics were largely autobiographical and shaped by her own life experience. One person who was moved by her evocative blues sound was the great writer and activist Langston Hughes. After seeing Memphis Minnie play a gig at a Chicago club in 1942, Hughes wrote, “… through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles at night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery that never brings the right letter.”

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes - American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist
Carl Van Vechten (Library of Congress)

In the late 1950s, Memphis Minnie and Little Son Joe were in declining health. They relocated to Memphis where they lived in poverty and relative obscurity. After her husband passed in 1961, fans rallied to Memphis Minnie’s aid, and she spent her remaining years in a nursing home. She died in 1973 and is buried in Walls, Mississippi, near where she lived while as a child.

A woman in a stylish suit poses for a portrait
Bonnie Raitt
Shervin Lainez

Initially Memphis Minnie’s grave was unmarked, but it was Bonnie Raitt who purchased a headstone for Memphis Minnie, and had inscribed as an epitaph, “The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. … Listening to Minnie's songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”

Classic Americana Playlist

Memphis Minnie – Memphis Music Hall of Fame