You just don’t mess with blueswoman Memphis Minnie

By Mike Greenblatt

The musical question of “what’s the matter with the Mill?” was first posed by singer-songwriter-guitarist Memphis Minnie (1987-1973) on Oct. 11, 1930, when she recorded the song with her husband, Kansas Joe McCoy (1905-1950), at the Vocalion Race Records label in Chicago.

“Now listen here, folks, I want you all to bear this in mind
If you’re goin’ to the mill, you’re just losin’ time
What’s the matter with the mill?
It’s done broke down!
I can’t get no grindin’, tell me what’s the matter with the mill.”

It’s a delightful recording, quite rare, and in surprisingly clean listening shape, explains John Tefteller, of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. The song is featured on the CD that accompanies Tefteller’s Blues Images 2013 calendar.

“It didn’t sell as well as you would think when it first came out, mainly because it was issued at the height of the Depression. Finding one today in nice shape is quite hard. One friend of mine has been looking for 10 years for a good copy and hasn’t seen one yet. I don’t think there’s been one on eBay, and if there has been, it’s been beat all to hell. That’s how you kinda normally find them. The one we got was taken right from the Vocalion master copy, so it sounds really good. A Mint one would go for up to four grand. And there’s a lot of people who would pay that.”

Memphis Minnie Vocalion ad courtesy Tefteller's World's Rarest Records

Memphis Minnie Vocalion ad courtesy Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.

In the 80-plus years since Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe recorded “What’s The Matter With The Mill” (which was backed with “North Memphis Blues” on Vocalion 1550), dozens of musicians have given it a shot, including Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Muddy Waters, Trombone Skinny, Moon Mullican, The Hot Club Of Cowtown, The Red Clay Ramblers, The Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs, The Crazy Rhythm Daddies, The Alabama Haircutters, Spider John Koerner and Bubba Coon.

Memphis Minnie, aka Lizzie Douglas, was born June 3, 1897, in Algiers, La. Minnie broke a lot of new ground in her long and prolific career: Not only did she sing the blues, she also played the guitar. She earned the respect of critics, the support of fans and the praise of her peers for her musical work.

But in the rough and tumble, male-dominated world of the blues business, you had to be tough, and Minnie was a bit of a hard-boiled character.

“She carried a knife, and I believe she may have even carried a gun. She was one tough lady. You didn’t mess with her,” Tefteller said.

Yet looking at the picture featured in Tefteller’s 2013 Blues Images Calendar, you’d think she was downright prim and proper.

“She looks quite elegant and totally harmless in the picture we chose,” Tefteller agrees. “There are other photos of her I have seen, taken in the Memphis streets with Kansas Joe, and they both look pretty darn tough, and she looks downright mean! The calendar photo is from a Vocalion release flier. The label was obviously trying to glamour her up a bit.” There she sits in a beautiful dress, holding her guitar, wearing a string of pearls, a flower gracing her right shoulder and a beret in her hair. It’s a classic.

“I was recently on the south side of Chicago doing some [record] research,” Tefteller continues, “and I found out where that photograph was taken: Thornton’s Photo Studio. I went there — well, at least, the address where it once was, and it’s an empty lot now in a real bad neighborhood. GM

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