…FIRST CAME MEMPHIS MINNIE
To fully appreciate Maria Muldaur’s fine new tribute to blues titan Memphis Minnie, it’s best to go back a ways, and not necessarily to 2001, when she first paid tribute to Memphis Minnie and Bessie and Mamie Smith on the rousing Richland Woman Blues. That’s a good place to start, since Richland yielded two acclaimed sequels devoted primarily to the music of female blues artists of yore, 2005’s Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and 2007’s smoky, swinging and aptly titled Naughty, Bawdy and Blue.
Really, though, to fully appreciate …First Came Minnie, it’s necessary to travel back in time to the early ‘60s, when the once and future Maria Muldaur, then known by her maiden name of Maria Grazia Rosa Domenico D’Amato before she married Geoff Muldaur, was the darling of the West Village folk scene, with Bob Dylan counted among her most ardent and lusting admirers. It was 1963 when Maria met another great lady of the blues, Victoria Spivey, who was then in her 70s and living in the Village and running her own record label. Taking the aspiring young Maria under her wing, Ms. Spivey invited the comely lass to her apartment, where she proceeded to educate her in the ways of the blues, playing her old 78s “looking for songs that would be suitable for my voice,” Muldaur recalls in her liner notes to the new album. “Of all the amazing tunes she played for me, the one that made the deepest impression was an old scratchy 78 of a haunting, soulful tune called ‘Tricks Ain’t Walkin’,’ by Memphis Minnie. From that moment to this, Memphis Minnie, and the example she set for me, has remained a profound influence on my life and my music. Here”—meaning on …First Came Memphis Minnie—“I have joined with some of my Sisters in Music to play tribute to the woman that inspired us and paved the way for us all.”
Maria Muldaur, ‘Me and My Chauffeur Blues,’ the first track on …First Came Memphis Minnie, originally released on the artist’s 2001 album, Richland Woman Blues. Roy Rogers on guitar, Rory Salley on bass.
The idea was a long time percolating. Jump ahead to 1993, when the aforementioned Bob Dylan is out touring his World Gone Wrong album, a collection of traditional folk songs Dylan performs acoustically with only guitar and harmonica accompaniment. Fittingly, Muldaur caught the Dylan tour on its Memphis stop and stood in the wings watching her old friend replicate the songs live as he had done them on the disc. At the same time, she recalled something he had told her about the music he had chosen for the album, to wit: “Take a good listen, because soon there won’t be songs like this. Factually, there aren’t now.”
“It crystallized in my mind at that moment that if he could do an album honoring those songs,” Muldaur told yours truly in a 2001 interview centered on the making of Richland Woman Blues, “that not only would I do an album of Memphis Minnie tunes and Bessie Smith–and sort of visiting all the early blues pioneers that were my personal favorites and that influenced me and inspired me so much–but that it would be a great idea to do it in a very unadorned presentation. To me that album Bob did, World Gone Wrong, where it was just his voice and his guitar, was so powerful I thought, That’s how many of the original blues artists did it. You know, some of my favorite stuff is just Memphis Minnie and a guitar. Or Bessie Smith and a piano. So that’s how the idea for how we were going to do it came about.”
Maria Muldaur, ‘I’m Goin’ Back Home,’ from …First Came Memphis Minnie, originally released on 2001’s Richland Woman Blues. With Alvin Youngblood Hart on vocals and guitar.
As anyone who’s followed Ms. Muldaur’s journey over the years knows, she is aging with incredible grace, looking good and singing with soul and authority born of experience—you might say she’s lived long enough now to have caught up with the real-world dilemmas she sang of in her youth, although she had yet to live life to the depths in order to understand those songs in her core. You have to have some background to cut loose with the “woo-hoo!” she emits with a growl in reflecting on a night of good lovin’ with “this righteous man” in “Lookin’ the World Over,” with impeccable National Steel accompaniment by Del Rey, one of several guest guitarists who shine during these proceedings. Conversely, the steely resolve in her voice when she kisses off an abusive partner in “I’m Goin’ Back Home” (another track from Richland Woman Blues), despite his threats to kill her if she goes, is that of a strong-willed woman taking charge, not a victim or an easily cowed lass. (Alvin Youngblood Hart delivers the man’s responses with chilly detachment and also fashions a jaunty guitar arrangement behind the vocals.)
Koko Taylor, ‘Black Rat Swing,’ from …First Came Memphis Minnie, originally released on Taylor’s 2007 Blues Award winning album, Old School. With Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin on slide guitar and Billy Branch on harmonica.
Mixed in with new recordings are a couple of Memphis Minnie covers from Muldaur’s Richland Woman Blues (from whence this journey began) including the saucy “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” (with Roy Rogers on guitar and Roly Salley on bass—the two break into a delightful sprinting dialogue about halfway through the track). But the titular artist also yields the stage to her Sisters in Music from time to time; that is to say, in addition to Maria Muldaur’s, this album includes Memphis Minnie songs as performed by Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, Phoebe Snow, Ruthie Foster and Koko Taylor. Raitt, with Steve Freund joining her on guitar, for an easygoing treatment of “Ain’t Nothin’ In Ramblin’,” a rare blues tune endorsing the joys of domesticity that Raitt famously performed on Prairie Home Companion in 2008 with Keb’ Mo’. In her song “Keep Your Big Mouth Closed,” Minnie crafted wise advice to the distaff side to keep its own counsel when confronted with verbosity, especially of the blustering kind, and Ruthie Foster, with Freund on guitar, delivers the message with unswerving conviction. Rory Block (who is on quite a roll with her own tributes to the blues artists that shaped her own music), serves up a smoldering, bold come-on on the gently stomping “When You Love Me,” and shows off her usual fingerpicking alacrity on slide while punctuating her playing with seductive spoken asides that might have the men in the audience heading for the showers. With David Bromberg providing exquisite, spare guitar and mandolin backing, the late, great Phoebe Snow burrows deep into painful memories of the past on the haunting “In My Girlish Days.” And from her justifiably acclaimed and Blues Award winning) 2007 long player, Old School, Koko Taylor roars at, stomps on and rides roughshod over a dissolute male companion in “Black Rat Swing,” aided and abetted in her rage by Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin’s sputtering, howling slide guitar and Billy Branch’s searing harmonica.
Bonnie Raitt, ‘Ain’t Nothin’ in Ramblin,’ from …First Came Memphis Minnie. With Steve Freund on guitar.
Ms. Muldaur most always injects some sly social commentary into her albums, and here that pursuit is served by her deep country blues treatment (Del Rey’s laconic finger picking sustains a mood of hopeless inertia, as Dave Earl adds a dollop of melancholy with his subdued, trilling mandolin cries) of Lucille Bogan’s “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’,” it being the lament of a lady of the night whose business is suffering along with the economy (“I got up this morning with the rising sun/I been walking all day and I haven’t caught a one/’cause tricks ain’t walkin’…and I can’t make a dime, I don’t care where I go…”). Likewise, “I’m Sailin’” explores a theme of escaping desperate circumstances (the singer’s man has been conscripted and left her penniless), in this case retreating to New Orleans—and given Ms. Muldaur’s historical association with the Crescent City, dating back in her solo career to 1992’s Louisiana Love Call, the tune has special resonance even in this context, where practically every song has special resonance with regard to Maria Muldaur’s career arc.
Memphis Minnie was an amazing woman and a gifted artist—singer, songwriter, ace guitarist who was one of the first blues artists to record with electric guitar (1942) and stands as one of the seminal figures in urban blues history. Her recording career spanned 40-plus years (bookended by the Great Depression and the end of WWII), she left a catalog of more than 200 songs and gave no quarter when competing with the male blues giants on the Chicago scene in her, and its, heyday. …First Came Memphis Minnie does this towering blues figure proud, even as it serves as yet another reminder of the superior work Maria Muldaur continues to produce, over the course of now 40 albums and lo these many years since “Midnight at the Oasis” put her on the cultural map in a big way in the mid-‘70s. She has a lot of Memphis Minnie in her, does Ms. Muldaur, so maybe it’s best to close with her own appraisal of the woman born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, on June 3, 1897, because so much of it might well apply to herself:
“At a time when women were kept in their place, both personally and professionally, Memphis Minnie was tough, independent, outspoken, and played a mean guitar. But she was more than just a guitar hero of early country blues. She ably adapted to newer trends and modernized her style, which helped account for her years of popularity. She was tough, determined, talented and courageous enough to defy and overcome all the racial, social, economic and gender barriers that existed in her time, forging the life she envisioned for herself on nothing but her own terms.”