When Ida Cox proclaimed "Wild women don't have the blues," she could easily have been singing about guitarist Memphis Minnie. It was unusual enough between the 1920s and 1950s for a woman to play lead guitar, front bands, and write most of her own material, but Minnie also drank, dipped snuff, cursed, fought, and led jam sessions with gutsy aplomb. Johnny Shines described her, admiringly, as a "hellcat." Historians point to her as one of the most important blues stylists of the pre-World War II era.
Minnie is usually cited as the exception that proves the rule that most of the great blues instrumentalists have been men; she was often touted as the woman who played guitar "like a man." In 1929 she cut her first records, citified variations on traditional Delta stylings, embellished by her dexterous technique and savvy choices of musical partners. In 1930 she moved from Memphis to Chicago, where she eventually took up electric guitar and laid down sounds as raw and aggressive as those of anyone in her era. She's also fondly remembered for the sessions she used to lead at clubs like Ruby Gatewood's Tavern at Lake and Artesian. Her pugnacious nature was never far from the surface. Johnny Shines remembers, "Guitar, pocketknife, pistol, anything she get her hand on, she'd use it."
Chicago authors Paul and Beth Garon have chronicled her life in Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, recently published by Da Capo Press. This is Beth's first book--the idea for it was hers. Paul has written extensively about the blues for more than 30 years, developing a radical critical perspective that's somewhat controversial among mainstream critics and academics.
He admits as much, and he's refreshingly curmudgeonly in his refusal to bend. "I find them [his critics] probably as odd as they find me," he asserts. "Interpretations like ours are always going to be called overdrawn. The left and the academics don't look at latent content as being important. But when you think about the scholarship that has gone into gospel music, almost all commentators nowadays unhesitatingly look at spirituals as protest songs, even though there weren't direct comments. They see 'I want to go to the land over yonder' as a very simple way of saying 'I want freedom.'"
The Garons see virtually any utterance of an oppressed people as being a potentially revolutionary act of defiance. In summoning the will to proclaim one's own selfhood through verbal or musical imagery, they say, the individual stakes a claim to personal and psychic power. "To see blues as a resistant, defiant music of the black working class really takes a perspective and a comprehension that a lot of people don't bring to it," says Paul. "The left attempt to see why the blues are not protest songs is one of the most pathetic endeavors that you can ever run across. It's not as if the blues culture is an emancipated culture. It's an oppressed culture, and what you will hear from it is songs of oppression, including sexist oppression and all sorts.
"I'm not going to say that anything they do is revolutionary, but I think the state of your relationship to your culture in fact imbues with a different meaning everything you do. Just try reaching for your hip very quickly while you're talking to a policeman, as opposed to at the dry cleaner's, and you'll probably get a different reaction. If you see the culture as an oppressed culture, if you see the culture as something always subject to racism and never possibly escaping that, I find it impossible to see how any utterance cannot be defiant."
To the Garons, Minnie's defiance is significant because she's speaking as a woman as well as an African American. "We look at Minnie vis-a-vis [her husband and accompanist] Joe in their duets, and we try to bring out that on the most superficial level some of their sounds are argumentative," says Paul. "Typical couple arguments--and yet that's also a man versus a woman, and it's also a woman who happens to be the leader of her partner, and a woman who's a better guitarist and a better vocalist, a woman who gets more leads. And the more you look at that you can see that many kinds of contests are going on there, not simply the basic blues arguments."
Critics have accused the Garons of forcing the burden of their political agenda on artists whose music was traditionally meant primarily for entertainment. Paul answers, "Ask Magic Slim how he gets along under the Garon burden. I think you'd probably find out that Magic Slim hasn't noticed the Garon burden!" Some have also questioned the extent to which commentators like the Garons can legitimately assume they know what the "latent content" of a long-dead blues lyricist's words was. Says Paul, "I guess I would say that we're one of the first people to care. If someone else wants to decide what their latent content is, that's fine."
Woman With a Guitar is available at most bookstores as well as the Garon's own Beasley Books, a rare-book business they run out of their home. They sell mostly modern first editions, specializing in radicalism, science fiction, black literature and history, and jazz and blues. For information call 472-4528.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Springer.