Blues, Women & The Guitar

When the first blues record – “Crazy Blues” featuring vocalist Mamie Smith, recorded on Aug. 10, 1920 – sold 75,000 copies in the first month after its release, American record companies knew that they were on to something.

This success led to the recording of many great female Blues singers, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey. Today, these musicians are categorized as performing “Classic Blues:” a female vocalist accompanied by as little as a pianist to as much as a multi-piece Jazz band playing songs that are, in many cases, more bluesy than actual Blues.

But, at first, with no guitar.

The first time a female Blues singer made a recording accompanied only by a guitar was on October, 23, 1923. The singer was Sara Martin, the guitarist was Sylvester Weaver and the song was “Longing For My Daddy Blues.”

By the way, the first male Blues singer/guitarist to make a record was Ed Andrews in 1924 doing “Barrel House Blues.” (Isn’t it somewhat disappointing to learn that the first male Blues singer/guitarist had such an un-colorful name?)

I would guess that there were other female-Blues-singer-with-guitar records after October, 1923, but the next one I know of was made on November 27, 1927. The guitar duo of Sylvester Weaver and Walter Beasley accompanied 14-year-old Helen Humes on “Cross-Eyed Blues” and “Alligator Blues.”

It seems that it wasn’t until June 18, 1929 (My post of that day should have been a triple header!) that a female Blues singer made a recording accompanying herself on guitar. That would be Memphis Minnie.

Memphis Minnie was born Minnie Douglas, June 3, 1896 in Algiers, LA. She recorded “Bumble Bee Blues” with second guitarist, Kansas Joe McCoy for Columbia Records in New York, NY. As a singer and instrumentalist that few Blues musicians of either gender could match, Minnie went on to have a long career in music, performing often and making records for several labels. Her last recording session was in 1959. She passed away on August 6, 1973. Check her out!

The topic of this post was inspired by a discovery I made in a wonderful book I’ve been reading: Delta Blues by Ted Gioia. In chapter 5, section 2, entitled “Let the buzzards eat me whole,” I learned about Geeshie Wiley.

Geeshie Wiley was a female Blues singer/guitarist whose “total recorded output can be heard in less than twenty minutes, and what is known about her life recounted even more quickly,” according to Mr. Gioia. What is known is that in two recording sessions, one in March, 1930 and the other in March, 1931, and both for Paramount Records at their studios in Grafton, Wisconsin, Geeshie and Elvie Thomas, another female Blues singer/guitarist, recorded six songs. On some, Geeshie sings lead and plays guitar with Elvie playing a second guitar part. On at least one, “Motherless Child,” Elvie sings lead and is accompanied by Geeshie on guitar.

Geeshie is the real standout of the two, with the songs “Skinny Leg Blues” and “Last Kind Words” being especially fine.  On her Wikipedia page, author Don Kent is quoted as saying: “If Geeshie Wiley did not exist, she could not be invented: her scope and creativity dwarfs most Blues artists. She seems to represent the moment when black secular music was coalescing into Blues.”

You can go to:  http://www.archive.org/details/Words and listen to “Last Kind Words” and see for yourself.

Also, according to the website publicdomain2ten.com, Geeshie’s recording of “Skinny Leg Blues” is in the public domain so I can post it here for you to listen to. Click on this: “Skinny Leg Blues” by Geeshie Wiley .

I hope you enjoy discovering new music as much as I do!

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