All About the Music
A closer look at and companion to the music we play on the show, written by the Prairie Home music librarian, Kathryn Slusher.



Good Cookin': the Songs of Memphis Minnie
By Kathryn Slusher

March 2003

If it were up to me, there would be a movie about Memphis Minnie. She is one of those characters in American musical history who seems larger than life: tough, determined, talented, and willing to strap on her walking shoes and travel the country with a guitar. Memphis Minnie made an indelible impression on blues music in this country as an accomplished guitarist, singer, and songwriter. And, with a career spanning three decades, she achieved a level of notoriety that had been traditionally reserved for only men.

Not surprisingly, her songs have shown up on our show time after time.

Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana, Minnie got her first guitar as a Christmas present in 1905, and taught herself to play. Not too long after that, her family moved to a farm in Walls, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Tennessee. Minnie never did care much for the farming lifestyle, and as a young teenager often ran away to hear the blues on Beale Street in Memphis. Eventually, Minnie started singing her own songs on the famous boulevard.

Memphis Minnie
"Frisco Town" is a well-known Memphis Minnie tune that our own Pat Donohue performed on October 20, 2001, with the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band.

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"Frisco Town" of course refers to the city of San Francisco, but the lyrics capture Minnie's nomad-like existence, which she kept up through much of her life. She moved all around the country playing the blues, but did stop for a while in Memphis and Chicago. The rhythmic guitar lick in this song evokes images of Minnie moving on a train bound for her next adventure. Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy's "Frisco Town" was released on Columbia records in late 1929, and was the first recording made of Minnie singing.

Dan Newton recently brought in his version of "Shake Shake Mattie", which he performed with the Shoe band on the January 25, 2003 show.

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Minnie wrote this song and her then-husband Kansas Joe McCoy recorded it. It was a hit in 1931. The refrain contains the line "shake shake Mattie, shake, rattle and roll", which pre-dates Bill Haley's classic song "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by 20 years. Dan Newton says of the song "'Shake Mattie' seems to force folks to their feet. It may be because of the "shake rattle and roll" in the refrain, or just because it's got that moving 'drive' to it that many simple 2-chord songs have when they get going. People seem to like that one and I'm continuously surprised at how many times I get requests for it, even from folks who don't have a clue who Memphis Minnie was."

Two of our guests have offered up different versions of one of Minnie's most famous songs, "Me and My Chauffeur Blues." John Cephas and Phil Wiggins performed their version of it (which contains elements of its influence, Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Schoolgirl") in their trademark Piedmont style on May 12, 2001

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and Mollie O'Brien did her version on June 8, 2002.

Mollie adapted the song to her own style and added lyrics dedicated to her daughter Brigid, who was soon to receive her driver's license, and calls it "Let Me Be Your Chauffeur".

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Minnie recorded "Me And My Chauffeur Blues" in May of 1941, with her husband Ernest Lawlars, who was known as 'Son Joe'. It became her signature song, and her contemporaries often covered it, furthering her popularity at the time. It is also the song she played when she supposedly beat Big Bill Broonzy in a blues contest at a club in Chicago. Legend has it the contest was judged by Sleepy John Estes and Tampa Red, and the prize was a bottle of whiskey. As the story goes, Minnie got up and played "Me And My Chauffeur Blues" to a wild crowd that carried on for twenty minutes, until the judges carried her offstage, declaring her the winner. Then Bill Broonzy grabbed the bottle of whiskey and ran away, with Minnie cursing him as he ran. Big Bill Broonzy is known to have said that Memphis Minnie "could pick a guitar and sing as good as any man [he's] ever heard".

Mollie O'Brien has performed two other Memphis Minnie tunes on A Prairie Home Companion, and is a great admirer of Memphis Minnie's work. She sang "Keep on Eatin'" with the Shoe band on October 6, 2001.

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Minnie wrote many songs about food and cooking, among them "I'm Gonna Bake My Biscuits", "You Stole My Cake", "My Butcher Man", "Good Biscuits", and "Selling My Pork Chops". It's a recurring theme, and one that is common among blues singers of her time. Good cooking was a symbol of a woman's ability to keep her man satisfied, going along with the notion that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Food can be interpreted as a metaphor for sex in these songs, and it is a way in which Minnie expresses her femininity. Her "cooking" songs take on an air of sensuality. But beyond all that, "Keep on Eatin'" has an infectious sing-a-long chorus that makes people want to participate. The song is in Dan Newton's repertoire also, and he says, "Whenever I sing that one, people just seem to naturally want to join in the refrain. It's also got something that makes people want to get out of their seats and dance." Dan got so used to hearing chatter and foot shuffling whenever he played "Keep on Eatin'", that when he recorded the song with his jug band Art Carnage for their album Here's Your Opportunity, he "had all the studio techs sit around a couple mics with beers and made them sing along and make noise in the background to make it feel right."

Mollie O'Brien came out to Seattle with us to sing "In My Girlish Days" on our June 23, 2001 broadcast.

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Minnie wrote this song in 1941, well into her career. It is reflective, and somewhat autobiographical, as the original lyrics state: "I hit the highway, caught me a truck/ Nineteen and seventeen/ When the winter was tough/ I didn't know no better/ In my girlish days". In 1917, Minnie would have been 20 years old; probably around the time she left home for good to travel the country as a musician.

Minnie's health began to fail her in the 1950s, and she retired to a nursing home after Son Joe's death in 1961, where she suffered a fatal stroke in 1973. She was a passionate artist, a colorful personality, and one of the most influential and historically significant blues figures in American history.





Past Articles
  • Winding Down at Wolf Trap (5/27/04)
  • Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew (3/26/04)
  • California, I'm Coming Home (11/26/03)
  • The Songs of Johnny Cash (10/23/03)
  • The Music of Lennon and McCartney (07/01/03)
  • A Tanglewood Lollapalooza (06/01/03)
  • Marvin and Mavis Keep Smilin' (05/01/03)
  • Classical Parodies (04/01/03)
  • Good Cookin': the Songs of Memphis Minnie (03/01/03)


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