I've gotta tell you, Paul and Beth Garon's Woman with Guitar is a genuinely odd little volume. It's also pretty great. This book-length study of seminal blues writer and performer Memphis Minnie makes many fascinating points, both about Minnie's life and work, and about the ways in which she managed to buck the system and bridge a number of gender- and class-based divisions. At the same time, the way in which the information is presented is, while not necessarily bad, very strange. If you likes 'em weird, and you like the early blues, this is the book for you.
Woman With Guitar is divided into two sections: the first 80 pages or so are devoted to a feminist-inflected recounting of Minnie's biography in the context of blues trends from the late 1920s through the early 1950s. To understand Minnie's importance, the Garons argue, you have to understand the trajectory of the blues: the first recorded blues artists, working in the early 1920s, tended to be female singers who performed in a theater, from a stage, and were backed by some minimal combination of instruments. This is now called the "Classic blues" or "vaudeville blues," and is represented by performers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter. Most Classic blues singers performed material written for them by Tin Pan Alley composers, although a few of them wrote their own songs. In the mid- to late-20s, a more grass-roots form of blues began to be recorded: called the "country," "lowdown" or "downhome blues," its musicians performed most often in parks, on street corners, and at casual community gatherings like backyard barbeques, while accompanying themselves on the guitar; as such, the country blues are often associated with class consciousness and individual expression. Early country blues musicians, though, were almost exclusively male, with Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lightnin' Hopkins being prominent examples. One of the reasons Minnie was such a striking figure is that she bridged these two forms: she was a woman who made a success as a country blues musician, playing the guitar "as good as any man" (she took the lead part in all her partnerships, specializing in complex multi-layered rhythms), acting as her own manager, and writing and performing her own material.
Another unusual aspect of Minnie's career is that it went on for an almost unheard-of length of time. While the recording careers of most Classic blues musicians were cut off by the advent of the Great Depression, which pretty much stopped the entire recording industry in its tracks from 1930 to 1934, Minnie was able to get through the lean years on live gigs, returning to the recording studio in the mid-30s and continuing to evolve her style through the 40s, helping to forge the "urban blues" of the post-war years and even the electrified Chicago Blues style of the 50s. The Garons do a good job of tracing this progress for the non-initiate of the blues scene, and they make some fascinating points along the way, acknowledging the complex and often contradictory forces at work in blues songs and blues culture. In one section, for example, they mention that the blues pseudonyms that have made the genre so recognizable (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Homesick James Williamson, Barbeque Bob) were often bestowed semi-arbitrarily by white record executives when the person first went in to record. When one stops to consider that many of these performers were born only thirty years or so after the abolition of slavery, which had its own conventions of whites re-naming black people, the practice takes on a particularly callous cast. At the same time, blues performers were able to transform these bestowed names into tools of subversion, as ways to avoid the systemic drawbacks of being named:
Everyday life where our names locate us firmly in the real is outmaneuvered by the refusal of the name. [...] Pseudonyms were often subversive economic tools used to facilitate recording for may companies while contracts with other companies were still in force. As Fats Waller said,
Don't give your right name, no, no, no!
On a number of records featuring two or more singers, one musician will often say to another, at the instrumental break, "Aw, play it, Mr. Man," one way of maintaining veiled identity on a record made under contract violation. It should also be heard as a note of direct opposition to the white habit of addressing adult black males as "Boy."
Whereas the first part of the Garons' book is fairly straightforward if politically aware biography, the latter two-thirds of the volume is devoted to a surrealist-influenced critical analysis of Minnie's work. I think both sections of the book are fascinating and feature valid approaches, but together they are a very odd combination. In particular, the first chapter of the second section, which sets out the Garons' methodological backgrounds, yanks the reader out of fact-based biography mode and into a jargon-filled crash course in French surrealists like André Breton and Alberto Giacometti. I have a fairly high tolerance for academic jargon, and I agree with the Garons' basic premise that any work of art exists at the nexus of artist and audience, but even I occasionally raised my eyebrows in the latter half of Woman with Guitar:
While these two phrases may be joined by conscious "sense," they are nonetheless arrayed in such a way before the listener that the images are, in fact, scattered. It is their gathering that is subjected to the whim of the listener's own actively occasioned passivity, i.e., to the whim of the listener's own obsessions.
Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that, despite the Garons' sometimes-humorous overkill on psychoanalytic and surrealist buzzwords (and despite the somewhat DIY nature of the volume, which could have done with more editing for typos and grammar mistakes), I ended up getting A LOT out of the latter part of this book. I would go so far as to say it made me a better blues listener, which is pretty much the highest praise I can think of for this kind of study. Among the intriguing points brought up which might be particularly useful to modern listeners:
- The Garons stress that white middle-class critics are often made uncomfortable with just how lowdown the lowdown blues can be. They relate a history of critical attempts to erase evidence that Memphis Minnie probably worked as a prostitute, for example. They also examine the troubling reasons behind this critical bias: why do we want to believe that a performer like Minnie would never have engaged in sex for money, despite multiple unrelated first-hand accounts to the contrary, and despite what we know for sure about her hard drinking and gambling? And what does that say about our attitude toward prostitutes, and toward artists? The Garons point out that attempts to paint the lives of blues artists in colors more socially acceptable to white people, is one big reason for hostility toward white bourgeois listeners within the blues community. So too, they make the further point that Minnie's own songs about prostitution often cast the prostitute as, not merely a victim, but as a person with sexual desires: a further source of discomfort for many middle-class listeners.
- When the blues were "rediscovered" (meaning, rediscovered by white people) in the 1960s, many folklorists tracked down country blues musicians, asking them to listen to their old records and decipher the lyrics of their songs, which were often inaudible due to poor sound quality. While this work was undoubtedly worthwhile for the blues historian, the Garons point out that its emphasis on "one definitive version," on the "correct" or "final" lyrics to a given song, is directly contrary to the attitude of most country blues musicians themselves. Instead, many performers saw their repertory as the object of constant change and evolution, with different artists building onto pieces previously performed by others so that a back-and-forth emerged within the community. No one version of a song, therefore, was ever "definitive," and a single performer would often alter a song considerably from one performance to the next. In the words of Son House,
Just because those words were the ones that got to be on the record don't mean that it was the only ones that could fit there. We changed them songs around all the time. It don't matter what you want me to listen to right now. I probably never done it again that way anyhow!
Perhaps above all, I appreciated the Garons' emphasis on the way the subject and/or object of a song, or the connotations of a metaphor or image, can shift during the course of a blues, and how those same images and metaphors are often informed by Southern folk beliefs as well as the reality of urban life. The blues is a subtle and complex poetics, but because it uses common words and is, on a surface level, accessible, it's easy to miss that subtlety, those shifts in setting or perspective, or those triple meanings that bring added depth to the experience. I think this is especially true because the subject matter—love, sex, alcohol, gambling, crime—is often considered "coarse" and erroneously dismissed as lacking in complexity. Despite their oddities, the Garons helped me to a new level of appreciation for this art form in general and Minnie in particular—now to collect more of her records!
If you're curious what all the fuss is about, here's Minnie (vocals, lead guitar) and her second husband, Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars (rhythm guitar), performing their hit "Me and My Chauffeur Blues."
For a little more fun, here's Minnie (lead guitar) and her first husband Kansas Joe McCoy (vocals, rhythm guitar) on their tune "When the Levee Breaks," which is more famous these days for the Led Zeppelin rendition:
Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues was my seventh book for the Women Unbound Challenge. One more to go!