various artists,
First Came Memphis Minnie
(Stony Plain, 2012)

Born in 1897 as Lizzie Douglas, Memphis Minnie had a performing career that lasted from the 1920s into the mid-1950s. She died in 1973. Though hardly the only female blues musician, she was unusual in choosing the path of raw, guitar-driven hardcore blues as opposed to the horn-and-piano uptown blues-pop of contemporaries Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter and others. Working a circuit dominated almost entirely by males, and rough ones at that, she had to be tough, and she had to be good. She was legendarily both.

She also left a legacy of enduring songs, written, co-written or at least associated with her, that only a relative handful of blues musicians can boast. Some appear on the splendid tribute album, ...First Came Memphis Minnie --"Me & My Chauffeur Blues," "In My Girlish Days," "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'," "I'm Goin' Back Home" -- done up in confident fashion by women who have absorbed the lessons Minnie had to teach.

This is a Maria Muldaur project, and eight of the 13 cuts are hers. The liner notes are vague about where this material comes from. I recognize some of the Muldaur sides from at least one earlier Stony Plain recording. But no matter; Maria Muldaur is always a treat, and acoustic Maria Muldaur is even better. It helps, too, that her accompanists include the smart likes of neo-downhome blues artists Steve James, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Roy Rogers and Del Rey.

One standout is by the late, sadly neglected Phoebe Snow, who died in 2011, and whose "Girlish Days" is a marvel of interpretative punch. She had a terrific song to work with, of course, but the restraint and subtlety Snow brought to the voicing of its sentiments, which rue the errors and excesses of youth (more outsized, perhaps, than yours or mine; they involve rambling highways and hopping trains) as if sharing intimate secrets with a trusted friend. "I had to travel before I got wise," Minnie explains, simply or not so simply. Another classic Minnie song, "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'," rolls off Bonnie Raitt's solo acoustic guitar and laconic vocal into the listener's ear and brain, there for an extended and welcome stay.

Except for the final cut, the late Chicago blueswoman Koko Taylor's rollicking reading of "Black Rat Swing," the various artists uniformly treat the material as the stuff of unamplified, pre-war blues. I imagine that you won't like ...First Came Memphis Minnie if you don't like music, but it's hard to imagine any other circumstance under which this album won't sound good to you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 November 2012

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