One of our newest books is a reissue of a classic music biography of one of the most legendary artists of all time. Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues by Paul & Beth Garon is the authoritative work about the life and times of Memphis Minnie.
This book goes into detail about Minnie’s life, her struggles, successes, and various marriages (and collaborations) with men. It features dozens of rare photographs. Most engaging of all is the nuance of her original songs, which were (and still quite innovative to contemporary listeners) a mix of tales about drinking, sex, poverty, infidelity, marriage, and surviving as a woman of color in a racist world.
The songs and Minnie’s lyrics are deconstructed in the book as well at great length, drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, critical theory, women’s studies, and surrealism. The Garons’ explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of popular culture as well as the largely hidden history of working-class women’s self-emancipation. And the songs also reveal, well before the first days of the “singer-songwriter”, Minnie’s actual life experiences.
In honor of that noble literary process and the music discussed, we’ve concocted a “playlist” below of several of Minnie’s songs and the hidden depths of blues lyrics, quoted from the book. The Garons have been writing about the poetics of the blues for a long time. You can also listen to most of the songs below.
“[The lyric] ‘Built their nest on me’ points specifically to the navel and birth. There is a strongly voiced preference for folk medicine, and the level of detail suggests a closely modeled source, perhaps even the singer herself.”
“Minnie’s song is . . . about sorting and organizing her terrain and her life, the roosters, the hens and pullets acting out a thinly disguised parody of human erotic existence. Most intriguing are the hints at the importance of purity, where in the ‘Banteys’ become the ‘dirt,’ contaminating the Dominiques and Plymouth Rocks.”
“[H]er whole song can . . . be heard as a ‘conjuring up’ of New Orleans as simultaneously as one’s home and the land of hoodoo. Surrounded by root doctors in the land of hoodoo, in the land of spells and potions, even the cooking begins to taste funny . . . The actual use of poisons by voodooists has since been ‘documented’ of course.”
“At the level of conscious intention, Minnie may have kept her cat free of hoodoo references so that its relation to rats could proceed, without obstacle, directly to its realization as an image of desire and sexuality.”
“Another way in which the blues is radical and revolutionary is how it functions as a visionary means. Even when sung in repressive language of the present, it still reaches for a liberated future.”
This just a taste of the many, many revelations about Minnie’s music in the book.
Perhaps the most famous appropriation of her music is “When the Levee Breaks”, famously covered by Led Zeppelin for their 4th record released in 1971. Very recently, Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes) and Ruby Amanfu collaborated on a single for Jack White’s Third Man label. Their cover of “When My Man Comes Home” can be found on Third Man’s website. Here is the duo singing “I Wonder”.