Magazine article The Spectator

True Blues

Magazine article The Spectator

True Blues

Article excerpt

Talk of blues music and you're likely to think of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, but most of these guys actually learnt their craft from women like Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Precious Bryant. In Lady Plays the Blues on Saturday, Cerys Matthews (who usually DJs on BBC 6 Music) took us to the Mississippi Delta to talk to people who knew these extraordinary female singers and guitarists.

In fact, 75 per cent of all the blues recordings made in the American South between 1920 and 1926 were by women, who plucked and slid their way through songs about their thievin', deceivin' partners; songs which later inspired Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan.

Some say it was Memphis Minnie who first took the broken neck of a Coca-Cola bottle and started sliding it across her electric guitar to produce the eerily potent wailing sound of a blues ballad. We heard snatches of her singing and playing on this Radio 4 documentary but not nearly enough of her. Frustratingly, the focus was on Matthews when what I really wanted to hear were these female balladeers who have been mostly forgotten, in spite of their huge influence. What character it must have taken to break out of their sharecroppin' life and set off on the road to play the music they were driven by some inner compulsion to make. 'My mamma cried, pappa did too, ' sings Memphis Minnie in her most famous track. '. . . I hit the highway, caught me a truck, Nineteen and seventeen, when the winter was tough. . . In my girlish days.'

Minnie knew what it meant to be truly blue and hungry.

Over on Radio 3, also on Saturday afternoon, World Routes was this week in North Carolina, where Banning Eyre went in search of the square-dancing, fiddle-playing octogenarians whose music takes us straight back to the first settlers of the 17th century. How did you get started? Eyre asked 89-year-old Benton Flippen who still sings with his Smokey Valley Boys. 'I bought a .22 rifle to start with, but traded it for a banjo.

It cost me 22 dollars.' He was aged 11. He learnt by 'listening to somebody else', picking up tunes that were sung by the men who fought in the Civil War, at one time holding more than 100 songs in his memory.

Eyre also met 90-year-old Jo Thomson, a fiddle-playing African-American who played to white audiences back in the days before strict segregation, calling the dances as he played. …

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