- Memphis Minnie's "Scientific Sound":Afro-Sonic Modernity and the Jukebox Era of the Blues
On New Year's Eve of 1942, Langston Hughes saw Memphis Minnie perform at the 230 Club in Chicago. She plays electric guitar, at least a year even before Muddy Waters.1 In his front-page column in the Chicago Defender, "Here to Yonder," on January 9, 1943, Hughes observes that she
looks more than ever like a colored lady teacher in a neat Southern school about to say, "Children, the lesson is on page 14 today, paragraph 2." But Memphis Minnie says nothing of the sort. … [she] smiles. Her gold teeth flash for a split second. Her earrings tremble. Her left hand with dark red nails moves up and down the strings of the guitar's neck. Her right hand with the dice ring on it picks out the tune, throbs out the rhythm, beats out the blues.
He writes emphatically of her plugging in: "The electric guitar is very loud, science having magnified all its softness away."2 He is perplexed by her appearance as a middle-aged woman playing guitar and singing the blues but even more so by her "scientific sound," "her electric guitar amplified to machine proportions—a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill." I take up Hughes's provocation, the seeming incongruity of Memphis Minnie and her electric guitar, and listen to his listening, so beautifully rendered in the written word. Few audio recordings capture her playing electric in this moment. War rationing, material shortages, and the American Federation of Musicians' strike in 1942 put a two-year hold on popular music recording, just as Minnie was beginning to record the blues on electric guitar. We do have evidence of these early studio efforts from May and December 1941, a handful of songs that Pete Welding describes as "among the earliest signposts pointing to the electrically amplified [postwar] ensemble blues styles," yet they fail to fully convey the hard-driving energy of her live performances.3 For that, we have Hughes's singular review of Minnie's New Year's Eve show.
Drawing on Hughes's account, the present essay troubles one origin story of the blues with another, to consider how Memphis Minnie's innovations with [End Page 75] technology make audible the changing aesthetics and black counterpublic of a jukebox era of the blues. As Hughes marvels at her "scientific sound," he calls attention to the significance of technology to the blues in its first decades of popular recording, as the form begins to automate from juke joint to jukebox, lauding Memphis Minnie as a uniquely evocative blues player. I am interested in the different histories told through and about the blues, the music as both agent and object of history. How does technology fit into the story? What does it mean to assert "a jukebox era of the blues" in which the blues is produced for and circulated through this particular medium? How does a jukebox era of the blues allow us to conceptualize a black counterpublic of blues musicians and fans? How does it help us think differently about gender and the blues within the broader parameters of Afro-sonic modernity? I take up these questions in my exploration of Memphis Minnie, whose encounters with changing technologies, commercial markets, and migrating publics shaped her aesthetic choices and the political import of the music she made.
This inquiry runs counter to much blues criticism that finds the music's commercial and technological contexts far less captivating than the romance of individual performer's mysterious circumstances. A persistent fascination with the esoteric enshrouds many "discovery" stories of the blues, among them, the formative impression of black scholar and composer W. C. Handy in his 1903 encounter with a singer in a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, "accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."4 The blues' "weird" resonance is amplified in its lore of Faustian bargains and moonlit deals at the crossroads. This pervasive mythology—so fixated on obscurity and loss, disappearance and rediscovery—works to magnify the influence of certain enigmatic, sporadically recorded performers...