If you were to walk into a room where Maria Muldaur’s 40th album was playing and not know anything about it, you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing a remastered digital version of old 78s. After all, …First Came Memphis Minnie is a tribute to a singer, guitarist, and songwriter who started her career in the ’20s, made her biggest mark in the ’40s, and is now considered the Queen Mother to every lady blues singer to follow in the country blues tradition.
Memphis Minnie, born Lizzie Douglas in Louisiana in 1897, paid some performing dues in the Ringling Brothers circus before her recording debut in 1929 with her then husband, Kansas Joe McCoy. In 1942, she was among the first to use electric guitar in country blues and thus helped pave the way for the next generation of folks like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon et al. Along the way, she released an extensive catalogue of her own songs, 13 of which are recreated on …First Came Memphis Minnie in pretty much the same spirit and flavor as the original recordings.
While …First Came Memphis Minnie is billed as a Maria Muldaur solo album, the project is really something of a hybrid. Many of the tracks feature Muldaur, including several previously released tracks on Muldaur albums. But many of the selections are from fellow sisters of the blues, including Koko Taylor’s rendition of “Black Rat Swing” from 2007 and Phoebe Snow and David Bromberg’s 1976 “In My Girlish Days.” Newly produced numbers include Ruthie Foster’s version of “Keep Your Big Mouth Closed,” Rory Block’s “When You Love Me,” and Bonnie Raitt doing “Ain’t Nothin’ In Ramblin’.” Raitt, if you didn’t know, was the one who paid for Minnie’s headstone.
But Muldaur more than contributes her fair share to the proceedings. For example, she offers a lively interpretation of “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’,” the first Memphis Minnie record she ever heard, appropriately on a 78. Of the other seven songs Muldaur sings, perhaps the best known are “Me
And My Chauffeur Blues,” “Long As I Can See You Smile,” and “I’m Goin’ Back Home.”
Supporting Muldaur and the other vocalists are a stellar cast of musicians such as Del Rey, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Roy Rogers, Steve James, and Steve Freund. While much has been made of Memphis Minnie’s pioneering work with the electric guitar, …First Came Memphis Minnie is essentially an acoustic set with much rhythmic strumming, occasional percussion, and considerable unplugged jamming. It’s such an old fashioned performance that, again, you can almost hear the clicks and pops of music heard on spinning black discs with a needle in the grooves.
Without question, …First Came Memphis Minnie is a history lesson taught by passionate disciples who’ve made their own way down the roads Memphis Minnie opened. Their reverence for these songs should lead most listeners to one conclusion—to seek out the original music an hear Memphis Minnie in her own voice. If there’s anything Muldaur, Raitt, Snow, Taylor and company have proven, it’s that classic music can breathe and live anew, long after Mom has handed down her axe.