Saturday, March 7, 2009

Music: Memphis Minnie

I love Memphis Minnie. She was a great blues guitarist and singer in the 1920s and beyond. Most people these days may not have heard of her, but she was the biggest female blues artist for decades, and they've almost certainly heard one of her songs.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 inundated about 27,000 square miles along the Mississippi River, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and killed at least 246 people. Perhaps more importantly, the behavior of local white landowners and then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who led the federal relief and rebuilding efforts, showed the still-stark dichotomy of treatment between whites and blacks. White refugee camps got the best resources and food, while the black camps got the leftovers and were situated in less desirable areas. Worse, the blacks were virtually enslaved, forced into the clean-up and rebuilding efforts and not allowed to leave the area until it was over. These abuses were a major factor of the Great Migration of over a million people from the South to Northern states and the defection of many blacks from the Republican party, the party of Lincoln, to the Democrats and support of Franklin Roosevelt as the Depression set in.

In 1929, Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe McCoy wrote a song about the flood called "When the Levee Breaks." Led Zeppelin later made some significant modifications, but the core of the song is the same. It's just one of those songs where a fairly straightforward recounting of a historical event becomes an allegory for any major and inescapable tumult in life.

Right now, my favorite Minnie song is "Blues Everywhere." "If there's blues in my room, I don't know right from wrong / Yeah there's blues in my kitchen cause my sweet man is gone."

You can listen to the songs I mentioned and others for free at Rhapsody.

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