Posts Tagged ‘Memphis Minnie’

Furry Lewis (March 6, 1893 – September 14, 1981) was born Walter E. Lewis to Greenwood, Mississippi sharecroppers, Victoria and Walter, Sr. His father left before he was born, and his mother moved him and his two sisters to Memphis near the turn of the century. She did wash, cooking and cleaning to provide for them. Young Walter attended school through the fifth grade, where he picked up the nickname “Furry”, before taking work as a delivery boy to help provide for the family.

youtube: Judge Harsh Blues

Furry made himself a cigar box guitar with screen door wires for strings and began playing on Beale Street corners for spare change. He recounted that W.C. Handy noticed the youngster and bought him his first real guitar. A neighborhood man, named Blind Joe, taught him to play “Casey Jones” and “John Henry”— old songs about legendary figures from American tall tales— songs that would become Furry’s staples.

By his teens, Furry Lewis was not only performing on street corners, but also in saloons and for house parties. He left Memphis to join the Dr. Willie Lewis Medicine Show as a comedian hawking oils and medicines. During these travels he was exposed to the guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and fellow Mississippi blues guitarist and compatriot, Jim Jackson.

In 1916, Furry Lewis lost a leg in an accident while hopping a freight train in Illinois. He spent a month in a railroad hospital in Carbondale, and was later fitted with an artificial limb. He returned to performing on Memphis street corners, Beale Street saloons, and in jug bands— along with Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson. He also took work hauling freight from riverboats, yard work and deliveries. In 1923, he became a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Furry held this job, sweeping up around Beale Street, until his retirement in 1966.

In 1927 and ’29 he cut some recordings for the Vocalion label at the Memphis Auditorium, along with a number of his contemporaries. The 23 sides for this label were the most prolific for a single Memphis performer at the time. They documented Furry’s slide guitar technique and humorous songs. The tune “I Will Turn Your Money Green” contained the classic line, “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”.

youtube: Furry’s Blues

Furry continued to play around Beale Street through the Depression and succeeding decades in his flashy style, often playing guitar behind his head. Samuel Charters, noted blues researcher and author of The Country Blues, rediscovered Furry Lewis in 1959. This began a period of popularity spawning performances at folk and blues festivals and recordings for the Prestige and Folkways labels during the 1960s, and opening shows for rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, through the 1970s. He was featured in Stanley Booth‘s book, Rhythm Oil, and the Burt Reynold’s movie, W.W. And The Dixie Kings. This led to many talk show appearances where he would retell funny and poignant stories about his life— and, of course, play “Furry’s Blues”. The State of Tennessee made him an Honorary Colonel in 1973, the first of such among African-Americans.

By the end of the ’70s, he was losing his eyesight to cataracts. Furry Lewis contracted pneumonia and died in 1981 at the age of 88. He was among the most beloved of all Memphis musicians. His grave has two headstones, one larger— purchased by his fans. It reads, “Bluesman”.

youtube: Sid Selvidge on Furry

youtube: When I Lay My Burden Down

image credits: Dan Dalton; Jim Marshall; Alain Frappier

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Contained within the triangle between Memphis, Dyersburg and Jackson, TN, is the rural area where John Adam Estes (January 25, 1904  – June 5, 1977) was born to a sharecropping family. (Sharecropping was a prevalent system of subsistence-level tenant farming for poor people in the South after the Civil War.) At age six, he lost sight in one eye to a rock thrown by a playmate. His guitar-playing father moved the family from Ripley to Brownsville in 1915. It was there that young Sleepy John Estes made crude guitars out of cigar boxes and began performing for local and family functions. Brownsville also yielded musical compatriots— mandolinist James “Yank” Rachell, “Hambone” Willie Newbern and harmonica-playing Hammie Nixon— with whom Estes would perform for more than fifty years.

youtube: Drop Down Mama

Estes worked in cotton fields, as a leader for a railroad maintenance crew, and played blues music at house parties, picnics and on the streets. Garnering his nickname from a tendency to doze off, he would occasionally hop a freight train and live the hobo life with his musical friends. A Beale Street jug band was formed in the 1920s with James Rachell and Jab Jones called the Three J’s Jug Band, and Sleepy John became a contemporary of Furry Lewis, Son House and Gus Cannon. It was in Memphis that he was first recorded by the Victor Record Company. He subsequently recorded for Decca, Bluebird, Champion, and Sun Records.

When work in Memphis dried up in the 1930s, Estes and Hammie Nixon traveled north to Paducah, KY and eventually to Chicago— playing lumber camps, on the streets and at parties. In Chicago, they associated with Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. Decca brought Estes to New York in the late ’30s where he was paired with the younger guitarist, Robert Nighthawk. He also recorded some jug band sides in the old Memphis style as The Delta Boys and traveled with Dr. Grimm’s Traveling Menagerie medicine show.

Sleepy John Estes returned to sharecropping in Brownsville in the 1940s and gradually became totally blind by the ’50s. He was rediscovered in the 1960s by the blues revivalists, although some doubted his identity due to Big Bill Broonzy mistakenly informing his biographer that Estes had died. He returned to performing with Hammie Nixon and toured Europe in 1964 with the American Folk Blues Festival, finding greater appreciation there than in his homeland.

Estes had a mournful, plaintive quality to his singing that was complimented by Nixon’s harmonica. The subject matter of his songs was always rooted in his personal experience or people he knew: a mechanic, a local lawyer, rural farming, urban factory workers or hopping a freight. His music often contained informed and personal social commentary and criticism of the plight of African-Americans during the Depression. Sleepy John Estes died of a stroke in Brownsville, TN on June 5, 1977. His gravestone reads: “Ain’t goin’ to worry Poor John’s mind anymore”.

youtube: ‪Special Agent Blues‬

image credits: Tom Copi; U.S. National Park Service; American Folk Blues Festival 1964

Memphis Minnie (June 3, 1897 – August 6, 1973) was among the most influential and pioneering blues musicians and guitarists of all time. The longevity of her career has hardly been matched, and her unique style affected much of the blues that followed thereafter. She was, like her idol Ma Rainey, a flamboyant character who traveled to shows in luxury cars and wore bracelets made of silver dollars. She was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, LA, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, across from the old slave docks in New Orleans. Memphis Minnie combined those roots with the blues she encountered in Memphis to point the way for the future of that style… taking rural blues into the electric, band-oriented sound that would be the hallmark in Chicago for decades after. She was among the first to take up the electric guitar.

youtube: ‪‪Bumble Bee

After learning to play guitar as a child, she ran away from her family’s farm in Walls, MS to Memphis at the age of thirteen. She began playing for tips at Church’s Park on Beale Street as Lizzie “Kid” Douglas, but she also went by the names Texas Tessie, Minnie McCoy, and Gospel Minnie. Shortly thereafter, she left town to tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus. After playing in the tent shows, it is thought that she spent time on the Bedford Plantation in Mississippi learning guitar from Willie Brown.

During the late 1920s, Minnie began playing with the Memphis jug bands. In 1929, a Columbia Records scout heard her and Kansas Joe McCoy playing “Bumble Bee” in a Beale Street barbershop. That began a long recording career with labels like: Decca, Vocalion, Bluebird, Okeh, Regal, and Checker. McCoy would be her musical partner for the next six years. She took up with a few accomplished blues guitarist: Casey Bill Weldon, Kansas Joe McCoy (later of the Harlem Hamfats) and Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlers. In the 1930s she moved to Chicago with McCoy; by 1939 she was with Lawlers. While in Chicago, she transformed that musical style by adding bass and drums, anticipating the sound of the 1950s Chicago blues.

In the 1940s she formed a touring vaudeville company. Some of her strongest and lasting recordings were made in that decade.  From the 1950s on, however, public interest in her music declined, and in 1957 she and Lawlers returned to Memphis, after moving around the north, and lived in poverty. After her health began to fail in the mid 1950s, Minnie retired from performing and recording. She suffered several debilitating strokes, but she lived to see her reputation rediscovered with the blues revival of the ’60s. In 1980, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame.

Her song “When the Levee Breaks” was covered by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, and her “Bumble Bee Blues” was turned into “Honey Bee” by Muddy Waters. Also, check out “Hoodoo Lady”, “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit” and “Can I Do It For You”.

youtube: ‪‪When the Levee Breaks

The end of her life was spent in a nursing home in Memphis, where she died of a stroke in 1973. A headstone paid for by Bonnie Raitt was erected on October 13, 1996. Laverne Baker was one of her nieces in attendance at the ceremony.

Langston Hughes wrote of her in 1943, “She grabs the microphone and yells, ‘Hey now!’ Then she hits a few deep chords at random, leans forward ever so slightly on her guitar, bows her head and begins to beat out… a rhythm so contagious that often it makes the crowd holler out loud…. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions… a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.”

youtube: ‪‪Bad Luck Woman

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image credits: JSP Records; Michael Ochs Archives; Frank Driggs Collection

During the early to mid-20th century, many African-Americans began to leave the impoverished and oppressive environment of Mississippi to find work in the factories of larger cities to the north. Among their numbers were some of the most seminal blues musicians of all time. Delta blues, Memphis blues and Chicago blues music constitute such an expansive subject that it would need a separate and extensive blog of its own. My intent is to highlight the effect that blues from the Mississippi delta had on the Memphis music scene— and that influence is inestimable. Memphis is the cap on the top of the Mississippi delta region and, because of its proximity, blues musicians streamed through it on their way to somewhere else, migrated there and stayed, or pilgrimaged to Beale Street in some consistent fashion.

youtube: ‪Big Bill Broonzy‬

youtube: ‪Howlin’ Wolf‬

Among the blues musicians who left for Chicago and other points were: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Alberta Hunter, J.B. Lenoir, Magic Slim, Jimmy Reed and his guitarist Eddie Taylor, Big Joe Williams, Otis Rush, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Little Milton, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner, Charlie Musselwhite and Bo Diddley. Some musicians moved from Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas to Chicago— like Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker, Robert Junior Lockwood, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, and Maurice & Verdine White. They created a more electrified, band-oriented version of the blues. Among the Mississippi blues musicians who mostly stayed in the delta and hill country (or kept their rural style) and impacted the Memphis scene were: Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Sam Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Fred McDowell, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner and R. L. Burnside— as well as others.

The blues musicians who were homegrown in Memphis, or migrated and stayed there, or made a larger mark in their careers by recording in the Bluff City, were (among others): Lillie Mae Glover (aka Ma Rainey II), Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), Frank Stokes, Willie Nix, Little Laura Dukes, John “Piano Red ” Williams, Mose Vinson, Rosco Gordon (and his “Rosco’s Rhythm”), Robert Wilkins, Joe Hill Louis, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Bobby “Blue” Bland, perhaps Bukka White and Albert King, and, of course, B. B. King. In the same sense that music developed in New Orleans of a certain fashion due to its geographical location and cultural influences, Memphis was destined to be impacted by Mississippi Delta Blues. It’s musical colors and flavors are the consistent threads that weave the range of Memphis’ musical styles into a cohesive and distinctive fabric.

youtube: Rufus Thomas on the Blues‬‬

David “Honeyboy” Edwards once said, “Something in the blues hits a lot of people because there’s some verse in there, somebody done done it. It’s just, the blues are like a story.”

youtube: ‪Robert Johnson‬‬

youtube: ‪‪‪Frank Stokes‬

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image credits: Graphic Maps; Chester Burnett; Stephen LaVere; Jorgen Angel