Johns Hopkins University Press
  • 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 in the historical accounts and reissues of the Delta blues stemming from the blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s to the present. Bluesmen such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Skip James, who sold comparatively few records in the 1920s and 1930s, even in their local markets, have since been cast as the quintessential sound of the country blues, their authenticity bolstered in seemingly direct proportion to their lack of popularity.5

In the mythical story of the genre's beginnings, secured within the postwar blues revival, the "deepest" country blues are born of the Delta; the Delta blues are primitive and raw, simple and stark, both geographically and temporally "cut off from the currents of modern life,"6 "looking back to the past, not ahead to the future."7 The tendency of blues enthusiasts to focus on Delta blues in the quest for authenticity carries with it a set of traditionalist assumptions: the Delta blues is a rural, Southern, masculine genre defined by its "relative isolation [End Page 76] from the formalities of city life" and its putative resistance to the feminized realm of "commercialization and commoditization."8 If the blues constitute a form of African American cultural survival, subterfuge, and resistance to white supremacy, significantly, in this version of the story, it is through the music's "nonverbal and oral" transmission, not through the avenue of mass-production.9 And the players? They are men. As Alan Lomax explains in his epic memoir of 1993, The Land Where the Blues Began, "The blues have been mostly masculine territory. … the majority of real, sure-enough, professional and aspiring-tobe-professional blues singers … wore pants."10 Summing up the romantic blues narrative, Elijah Wald notes how "popular entertainers were reborn as primitive voices from the dark and demonic Delta, and a music notable for its professionalism and humor was recast as the heart-cry of a suffering people."11 In the words of Marybeth Hamilton, as white blues scholars and aficionados sought "uncorrupted black singers, untainted by the city, by commerce, by the sights and sounds of modernity" to record and later to collect in the form of 78s, they "willed themselves to hear past the machine."12

I join Wald, Hamilton, and other recent interlocutors of the blues and its historiography in aiming to tell a different story. To do so, I listen for the machine—in this case, the record, the phonograph, and especially, the jukebox—to reconsider the relationship of black performers and audiences to the blues by way of its mediating technologies. The jukebox is not merely a vehicle. Rather, it transforms the soundscape of the juke joint itself, playing records made elsewhere in time and space in the here-and-now of the bar. As the jukebox amplifies sound through electricity, it reflects changes in recording technology, making new sounds not only possible but desirable, a source of pleasure; audiences hear the music differently, musicians hear themselves differently, and they change their styles and repertoires accordingly. Alexander Weheliye calls attention to this aspect of blues culture in his key conceptualization of Afro-sonic modernity, "the novel cleft between sound and source initiated by the technology of the phonograph in twentieth-century black culture."13 This conception asks us "to strive to understand how technologies have affected the production, consumption and dissemination of black popular music and vice versa."14 In this essay, I pick up these strands to consider the interplay between live and recorded music, exploring how blues performers and audiences heard themselves and each other once the jukebox could circulate and amplify recorded sound beyond human source in the communal space of the juke joint.

I listen for another excluded aspect of the Delta blues story as well, the presence of black women performers. I locate my investigation in the long, innovative career of Memphis Minnie, a country blues player often invoked [End Page 77] as the exception that proves the genre's masculine rule. Memphis Minnie was not the only woman in the country blues genre but she was remarkable, especially in her play with technology, including her early adoption of the electric guitar. By listening for the machine in her career—and listening to her listening to the machine—we might conceive of a jukebox era of the blues that encompasses a black counterpublic of blues musicians and fans and contributes to our understanding of one of the central mediums and modes of Afro-sonic modernity. Such periodization around technology, rather than style, asks us to engage more deeply with the way music gained popularity, how it was circulated as a medium of encounter that gave rise to new forms of artistic innovation and political possibility as well as shared repertoires and publics. Moreover, it disrupts a neatly gendered divide between classic, vaudeville blues dominated by black women and country blues dominated by black men.15 If Memphis Minnie does not seem to fit into either genre due to her style and gender, perhaps she belongs to both. Memphis Minnie never denied her connection to the classic blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith that she heard on record and the jukebox, and it is unlikely that many of her fans did either.

In the first sections of the essay, I turn to the fieldwork of folklorists and collectors as well as histories of the automated music industry to explore the shifting relationship between the juke joint, the jukebox, the blues, and its artists and audiences. What emerges is a jukebox era of the blues: it includes "the first major period of downhome blues recording" from 1926 to 1930, converging with the recording boom of the classic blues through the 1920s, and it grows exponentially in the following decades.16 The jukebox era of the blues represents an important facet of Afro-sonic modernity, when race records circulated in regional scenes that expanded outward to national and international markets, emanating sounds that extended temporally backward and forward. This framework situates blues innovation in a commercial context of production, circulation, and audience appeal. It explicitly foregrounds a moment when blues musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Roosevelt Sykes, Walter Davis, and Memphis Minnie became popular, attracting black audiences, primarily women, through the mediums of the record and the jukebox.17

In the remainder of the essay, I explore how Memphis Minnie bridges the classic, vaudeville blues of Ma Rainey with the "downhome," then-modern, urban sound that she helped create. She is a self-conscious inheritor of a blues repertoire fashioned by brilliant black women performers who came before her. Her recording career spans three decades into the late 1950s: during those years, she gained her popularity through the jukebox, and she innovated the [End Page 78] blues, going electric, with and against the jukebox. Her play with the temporalities of live and recorded sound offers a nuanced history of black social life, allowing us to hear blues modernity in a different political register.

Jook Joint

With characteristic certainty, in 1934, Zora Neale Hurston put it this way: "Musically speaking, the Jook is the most important place in America. For in its smelly, shoddy confines has been born the secular music known as blues and on blues has been founded jazz. The singing and playing in the true Negro style is called 'jooking.' The songs grow by incremental repetitions as they travel from mouth to mouth and Jook to Jook for years before they reach outside ears."18 Jook joints begat the blues and the blues begat jazz, traveling from the inside ears of the isolated backwoods to the outside ears of the city, the very sound of the Great Migration (fig. 1). This is a story of transformation through transmission and repetition, shaded with a tinge of nostalgia for an original, pure blues. You can hear the beginnings of the romance of jook joints as ground zero for collectors' and fans' obsessions with a "real" blues that was/is ever unattainable, first in the form of live performances and then in the form of 78s.

A few years later, the authors of the famed Mississippi Delta Study of 1941, including Lomax and John Work III, would construct a rather different account. Rejecting a fixation on "pure blues" by folklorists and amateur blues collectors alike, they took a more radical approach, seeing the jook joint as a harbinger of cosmopolitan modernity, a manifestation of the highway culture that was transforming the South. Describing Clarksdale, Mississippi, as "a trade and culture" center, a city of the Delta with a population of 12,168, they explained how "the development of the highway, the coming of the radio, the automobile, the movie [theater] and the juke joints, furthered the contact opportunity for Negroes on the plantation."19 John Work, in particular, notes "the electrification of the plantation with the appearance of the juke box." Another field worker, the sociologist Lewis Jones, concludes: "With an increased participation in the urban way of life, the element of loneliness creeps into the plantation man's moods; and the 'Blues' are the natural expressions of the urbanized Negro."20 Encapsulating the conditions of modern life, the Delta collectors describe how mediating technologies reconfigure the scale of everyday experience, in particular, the experience of community through cultural consumption. As distance and time are collapsed, new intimacies emerge, intimacies that redraw the bounds of public, collective and private identity [End Page 79]

Figure 1. "A cross roads store, bar, 'juke joint,' and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, La." Marion Post Walcott, June 1940. Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Collection.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

"A cross roads store, bar, 'juke joint,' and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, La." Marion Post Walcott, June 1940. Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Collection.

and its affective dimensions: new contact opportunities in the realm of consumer culture paradoxically open up the possibility of loneliness by way of anonymity, a new structure of feeling.21 Put differently, if mediating technologies connected larger groups of people through the act of consumption, there was also a heightened risk of feeling lost in the crowd.

In assessing the significance of the juke joint to the blues, Hurston looks back while the Delta collectors look forward, a schism both temporal and romantic, in and out of time. Hurston's account locates the blues' origins in its alienation from urban modernity, while the Delta study locates its origins in an alienation that emerges within urban modernity. Taken together, they show how the blues moves within an increasingly connected modern, Southern geography of juke joints, amplified through technologies of sound such as the guitar and, later, the jukebox.


That Hurston's account of the juke joint in the early 1930s would emphasize live performance rather than records on the jukebox is not surprising. In 1933, on the eve of Prohibition's repeal, there were reportedly twenty thousand [End Page 80] jukeboxes in America, and rural electrification had not reached many parts of the country. By the late 1930s, there were more like five hundred thousand jukeboxes, over half of them in the South (fig. 2).22 Almost every tavern had a jukebox. It makes sense, then, that the Delta collectors in their fieldwork in the early 1940s had the forethought to not only interview and record local performers but also note the contents of the jukeboxes. This practice breaks from purist delineations of an authentic blues located beyond the realm of interracial, popular culture, a belief upheld by folklorists and amateur collectors alike. As Lomax, Work, and their team traveled the Delta trying to capture and preserve the music they heard, they were aware of the ways that music, whether live or recorded, sounded "patterns of living" that were shifting between the generations, as the youngest generation confronted "a succession of changes in their way of working and living from war to war."23 From this angle, jukeboxes functioned as collections of the commercial and popular, an index of local listeners' tastes in a rapidly expanding national market where the sounds of swing, jazz, pop, hillbilly, and the blues intermingled.

In an odd way, if the juke joint was the "cradle of the blues," it was also the birthplace of the jukebox.24 Though precursors of the jukebox date back to the coin-operated phonographs, piano players, and orchestrions of the 1890s, the first electrically amplified, multiselection phonograph was released in 1927 by the Automatic Music Instrument Company, soon followed by similar models from Seeburg, Wurlitzer, and Rockola.25 In the late 1920s, early jukeboxes were found in some Southern juke joints and Northern nightclubs, restaurants, and private homes hosting "rent parties," communal spaces that catered to African American blues fans who could not afford phonograph players and could not find the blues—or hillbilly music, for that matter—on the segregated, "classed-up," and censored airwaves of early radio.26 During Prohibition, Harlem contained the most jukeboxes of any East Coast region.27

For many black listeners, the jukebox was a more affordable medium than the phonograph. While it cost twenty-five cents to purchase a dime-store label disc and seventy-five cents for a premium label disc, those prices did not include the cost of a record player, a relative luxury item in the 1920s and 1930s. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of African American farm families owned phonographs in the late 1920s; many more black listeners depended on the jukebox to hear the latest race records and other popular hits for five cents a song.28 When record sales dropped precipitously with the onset of the Depression, Bessie Smith's catalog was rumored to have kept Columbia Records afloat. Her records continued to sell. Radio might have been free, but devoted listeners were rarely able to rely on it as a source for hearing Smith's music, other than the occasional broadcast of a live performance.29 Smith's fans played her records on phonographs—and jukeboxes. [End Page 81]

Figure 2. "Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Sergeant Williams and friends playing a jukebox in the service club." Arthur Rothstein, March 1942. Office of War Information Collection.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

"Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Sergeant Williams and friends playing a jukebox in the service club." Arthur Rothstein, March 1942. Office of War Information Collection.

[End Page 82]

Smith's success foretold the ways that the record and jukebox industries would come to depend on each other. By 1936 over half of all recorded music was made for the jukebox, a shift that largely accounts for the American record industry's recovery by the end of the decade.30 As the industry increasingly aimed its product toward a public sphere of listening and dancing "away from home," its repertoire changed accordingly. Herb Allen, a Columbia Records executive, would describe how some records were better for jukeboxes and others for home use, depending on their production values and acoustic dynamics.31 Whole series were created for jukeboxes featuring sounds and genres such as jazz, swing, hillbilly, and the blues deemed suitable for the "noisy and confusing" atmosphere of the club but too "blatant to be tolerated at home" and not altogether appropriate for the radio.32 Both hillbilly and blues became "louder, more percussive, … electrified," anticipating the sonic dynamics of rhythm and blues that would lead to rock 'n' roll.33 At one point, the Brunswick label promoted its subsidiary, Vocalion, a label featuring black artists, as engineered to serve and make money for jukebox operators.34 The jukebox industry grew, and Billboard and Variety introduced weekly buying guides and jukebox record charts to help jukebox operators meet the needs of their clientele. The market for race records was revived in tandem with the jukebox.

Yet the jukebox industry denied this mutually dependent relationship. Though the industry indirectly profited from the censorship of race records in radio broadcasting—people turned to jukeboxes to hear the music they could not hear on the radio—it upheld similarly censorious attitudes in the marketing of its own machines. Concerned about the jukebox's image, given the origin of its nickname and its multiracial, working-class clientele, the industry executives ran "anti-smut" campaigns.35 The automated music industry—the jukebox industry—steadfastly refused the association of its product with juke joints, on the grounds that the name had "cheap," "lowdown" (read: black) connotations.36 Despite the industry's attempts to brand the machines as "music vendors" or "coinographs" and supplant the black, Southern, working-class meanings of "juke" (brothel, dance, or sex) with a faux Viennese origin and an Old English and Scottish etymology ("to hop or skip about like a bird"), the name "jukebox" still stuck.37

This brief account illustrates how the social dynamics of segregation that shaped the emergence of the juke joint as a space of black leisure also drove the popularity of the jukebox among black listeners. The jukebox transformed [End Page 83] the segregated communal spaces where black listeners gathered to relax, dance, drink, flirt, and socialize. It brought the sounds of the most popular performers recorded in other places and times to their particular locale, linking disparate spaces, rural and urban, to form a larger network of black musicians and audiences, simultaneously sounding and collapsing the distance between them. Through a shared listening experience, the jukebox offered a collective sonic reorientation in space and time, a sense of cohesion and possibility, a respite from the hardships of daily labor in Jim Crow and a response to the contradictions of "black displacement: of rural migration and urban flux."38 The full story of the jukebox's function in the creation of a black counterpublic of music fans, dancers, and performers, its role as an instrument of black social life in Afro-sonic modernity, has yet to be told. By exploring the intertwined history of the jukebox and the juke joint, we begin to attend to the technological and commercial contexts oft-overlooked in conventional blues histories that focus on genius performers, single regions, and styles. Such a focus takes seriously Francis Davis's contention that "the history of blues, in one sense, is the history of folk art in the age of mechanical reproduction."39 Without a doubt, in this moment, for black musicians, the jukebox provided their largest audiences and widest exposure.40 The blues was automating.

Memphis Minnie and the Jukebox Era of the Blues

Memphis Minnie recorded some of her biggest hits for jukeboxes, songs such as "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" and "Nothing in Rambling." During the 1930s, she had a new record issued every few weeks until the beginning of the war and the American Federation of Musicians' ban on recording.41 Her records were praised in Billboard for "catch[ing] coinage at the race locations," for profiting jukeboxes in black clubs and bars.42 At the same time, her repertoire, based on set lists, included a broad range of hits beyond her original songs, such as "Summertime" and "The Woody Woodpecker Song."43 Juke joints, bars, clubs, and restaurants were segregated, but their playlists were not; many styles of popular music, regardless of their racialized marketing, would shape Memphis Minnie's modern sound. As the jukebox was automating the blues, musicians like Minnie were becoming "mechanical-age songsters" (fig. 3).44

In the words of Hortense Spillers, "You can't talk about the era of sound in the US without talking about blues and black women."45 We need look no further than Memphis Minnie to know just how right Spillers is. Within the country blues, Minnie was part of "an important female minority"46 of recorded artists including Mattie Delaney, Louise Johnson, "Signifyin'" Mary [End Page 84]

Figure 3. Memphis Minnie Vocalion Race Record Publicity Photo, 1935. From the collection of John Tefteller and Blues Images, .
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 3.

Memphis Minnie Vocalion Race Record Publicity Photo, 1935. From the collection of John Tefteller and Blues Images,

Johnson, Lottie Kimbrough, Bertha Lee, Ethel McCoy (Minnie's niece), Rosa Lee Hill, Precious Bryant, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Bessie Tucker and Ida May Mack, Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley as well as unrecorded country blues musicians such as Josie Bush, Savannah Weaver, and others.47 The blues player Bukka White, who played with Minnie, once observed that she "was about the best thing goin' in the woman line."48 Though there was a "woman line," this group of performers is often overlooked: to this day, Minnie is remembered mainly as a feisty exception to the masculine rule, for being a rare woman in country, then urban blues, a genre dominated by men.

Memphis Minnie's legacy is not reducible to her (erroneous) status as the "only one." In the guitarist Otis Rush's recollection, "she was something else on guitar. She was more like a modern singer and guitar player in those days."49 In an essay on the rich meanings of the trumpeter Dolly Jones's solos in Oscar Micheaux's 1938 film Swing!, Sherrie Tucker asks us to "consider those moments when women playing instruments and styles associated with men were not only seen as novelties, or as musicians who happened to be women, but as evidence of new generations and new possibilities."50 In Memphis Minnie's playing, Rush hears "something else," something new. By listening for Minnie's [End Page 85] modern sound, so might we. Minnie's career span and stylistic innovations disrupt the tidy, gendered bounds of genre, place, and periodization that shape so much of blues historiography, the equation of vaudeville/classic blues with black women and the urban 1920s and the country blues with black men and the rural 1930s.51

Like just about every other famous blues musician from the period, Memphis Minnie's biography both supports and confounds the shaping myths of the blues. Born in the Delta, called to Memphis, then New York, then Chicago, hers was an itinerant life lived between cities and labels, musical and romantic partners, the music filling the airwaves in the spaces between. Tucker asks if we can "imagine the Great Migration including black women carrying musical instrument cases?"52 Indeed, Memphis Minnie was one of the many "musicians who participated both in the accelerated speed of black sound facilitated by new recording technologies, and on the circuits paved by industrialization, urbanization, and migration that connected traveling musicians with mobile and displaced audiences and with one another."53

Born Lizzie Douglas, most likely in Tunica County, Mississippi, in or around 1897, she was the eldest of thirteen kids.54 She received her first guitar when she was eight. In her teens, she would regularly run away to Beale Street to busk as "Kid" Douglas. Locally, she played house parties, fish fries, and juke joints, and she also traveled the South playing tent shows with the Ringling Brothers' Circus.55 The vaudeville circuit paid off. James Watt of the Blues Rockers recalls: "She was … a showman all the way. She'd stand up out that chair, she'd take that guitar and put it all 'cross her head and everywhere, you know."56 At an early age, she played lead with "second" guitarist Willie Brown (most often associated with Son House and Charlie Patton) and later Casey Bill Weldon, to whom she may or may not have been married at one time, and she also worked with the Memphis Jug Band and Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band.57 It was at a Beale Street barbershop that a scout for Columbia discovered the Kid with her duet partner, Joe McCoy (fig. 4).

They recorded together as Memphis Minnie and "Kansas" Joe McCoy in 1929, traveling to New York to cut "When the Levee Breaks" along with their first version of "Bumble Bee." Newly flush, they bought National tricone steel-bodied guitars that were just marketed in 1929, resonator guitars four times louder than guitars made of wood, able to withstand the rigors of the tent shows, one instance of many that revealed Minnie's turn toward innovation in amplification and tone.58 As Kernodle observes, like many guitarists from the Delta, Minnie played "very percussively, often bending the strings of the instrument in order to mimic the flexible timbre of her voice."59 [End Page 86]

After recording with all "three of the major race series labels"—Decca, Victor, and Vocalion—Minnie's partnership with McCoy ended around 1935: she was getting first billing, making solo recordings, and also trying out ensemble-based, rhythm-heavy arrangements under the production of Lester Melrose of Bluebird Records, creating songs suitable for the "blatant" acoustics of the jukebox, its greater volume and fidelity to the high and low end.60 Kernodle surmises that her experimentation with "new sounds … enabled her to survive the commercial music shift that would displace classic blues women."61 In the late 1930s, Minnie paired up with another guitarist, Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawler, her romantic partner for the next twenty-three years. Though she toured often, especially in the South, she was well-known in the Chicago scene, hosting legendary Blue Monday parties at Ruby Lee Gatewood's Tavern, performing in the most crowded nightclubs and bars on the South Side, and winning "cutting contests," music competitions against guitarists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters.

In addition to her prodigious record output and heavy touring schedule, at some point in the 1930s and early 1940s, Memphis Minnie also appeared as a guest on the popular Red Hot and Low Down radio broadcast, a show featuring blues and jazz that aired live on Chicago's WCFL, WJJD, and WAAF stations.62 A write-up of her appearance at the Ogden Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937 boasted that she "hails from Chicago's radioland."63 In the Chicago Defender, she is celebrated in 1942 as "one of the most famous song stylists in the game song today."64 Memphis Minnie was making records, performing shows, and playing broadcasts, circulating her work through live and "canned sound" mediums, a true recording star in the jukebox era of the blues.

The very terms of Memphis Minnie's popularity—her virtuosity, her technological innovation, her choice of genre, and her stage persona—align with masculinized notions of blues musicianship that render her illegible in conventional blues histories.65 She was a woman performer who wrote her own music, she was the second most-recorded blues woman of her era (recording over two hundred songs, second only to Bessie Smith), and she made a living at it until she could no longer perform in the early 1960s. Minnie always played lead, her intricate fingerpicking working on top of her partner's counterpoint, in the Memphis style. By some counts, she was a perfectionist and a taskmaster. In the lore, she was a fighter. Johnny Shines, guitarist, recalls: "Any men fool with her she'd go for them right away. She didn't take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket-knife, pistol, anything she get her hand on she'd use it."66 She gambled and drank.67 She chewed tobacco.68 She swore.69 In homage to Ma Rainey, she wore money (a bracelet of silver dollars minted the year she was [End Page 87]

Figure 4. Memphis Minnie with music partner and husband "Kansas" Joe McCoy. 1930.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 4.

Memphis Minnie with music partner and husband "Kansas" Joe McCoy. 1930.

[End Page 88]

born), and she rolled up to shows in luxury cars.70 Importantly, she sported guitars of the newest make. She was gorgeous and glamorous. In Minnie's three-decades-long career, she played the country blues of the Delta, bringing it north, only to transform it into the postwar Chicago sound. She was one of the first guitarists to wear a strap and stand up and play, and she was one of the first to go electric.71 In the words of another guitarist, Willie Moore, "She was a guitar king."72 She had swagger.

Scientific Sound

The jukebox and the electric guitar were central purveyors of Memphis Minnie's modern sound as it circulated and changed throughout her career, providing her with what Tucker describes as "pathway[s] of possibility."73 When Langston Hughes saw Memphis Minnie play on New Year's Eve of 1942, he was startled by what he heard: "The electric guitar is very loud, science having magnified all its softness away. Memphis Minnie sings through a microphone and her voice—hard and strong anyhow for a little woman's—is made harder and stronger by scientific sound." Hughes registers her electric sound through a language of bodily sensation—it is loud (aural); it is magnified (visual), and it is hard (touch). These effects convey its palpable liveness, an embodied resonance between the performer and the listener accomplished through technology. Hughes calls attention to the nexus between technology, science, and art, so often ignored in accounts of the country blues, black women's participation in it, and assessments of black music culture more generally.

Hughes's review illuminates one pivotal moment of transformation in Memphis Minnie's long career and the larger Chicago scene. While he grapples with the newness of her "scientific sound," its "sheer noise," it resonates deeply with the past for him. This dynamic reflects the nonlinear temporalities of recording, of acousmatic sound—recorded sound unmoored from its original scene of creation, the time and space of the performance and the performer—the ability to hear something made back then and there, here and now.74 Memphis Minnie conjures up these temporalities in her live performance, by electrifying and amplifying her sound, by evoking the sonic force of recorded music's volume in playback. From this angle, her "scientific sound" opens up an inquiry into her innovative encounters with technology as a musician, the ways her music, both live and "canned," improvised on shifting conceptions of recording, [End Page 89] production, amplification, and the commercial marketplace, reshaping the blues sounds of Afro-sonic modernity.

Various currents led to Memphis Minnie's "scientific sound." It is worth considering how technology charged and changed the blues of the jukebox era and how Minnie's skill and artistry allowed her to play this circuit, to move from acoustic to electric without skipping a beat. (Not for nothing, in "Socket Blues" she sings "but I've got to have a socket / everywhere I go"—a double entendre about clothes' irons, not guitars—in 1932.) Memphis Minnie began her recording career in the late 1920s as advances in electrical recording, microphones, and amplification were improving the sound and volume of records, leading to greater flexibility in repertoire, composition, and arrangement, opening up the possibility of new styles, including the later emergence of the electrified blues combos of Chicago in the 1940s. With the introduction of condenser microphones able to capture a fuller range of frequencies and dynamics, musicians were no longer constrained by the small group, midrange, midvolume requirements of the acoustical recording horn.75 Electromechanical recording made it possible to capture drums, harmonicas, and other low- and high-frequency instruments without making the needle jump in the process.76 A band could increase or decrease the number of players and the range of instruments and transform the style of singing (crooning) and playing (dynamics and frequencies), creating new sounds of intimacy and collectivity in recording, retraining the public ear for popular music in the process. The guitar took over from the banjo, the string bass from the tuba, because recording could more fully reflect their sounds. Jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian moved from "comping" chords to soloing, finally able to be heard amid the brass. The small jazz ensembles that accompanied classic blues singers, made up of piano, brass, strings, drums, and wind instruments, were supplanted by guitar, bass, and drum combos in the country blues / urban blues idiom. Guitar-based blues ensembles could afford to include bass and drums and other instruments in live shows and on record because the amplified, sometimes electric guitar was no longer drowned out by the booming rhythm section.77

Such changes in recording made it possible to produce records specifically calibrated for the jukebox's acoustics—its large speaker size and amplifier uniquely allowed for higher volume and better sound quality on the lower frequencies (the rhythm section), ideal for playing music with a beat that moved a crowd. Moreover, with increased instrument and vocal amplification, live shows could now more closely approximate the charged sound field of the jukebox.78 Peter Doyle notes how as "public address systems were [only] gradually installed in halls and theatres through the 1930s," some bands traveled with their own, [End Page 90] though "these were typically very low wattage amps, just capable of lifting a featured singer's voice above the band."79 Yet Hughes describes Minnie's voice as "so hard and so loud" that its definition and melody "get lost under sheer noise." We might imagine that she uses the amplifier in combination with a mode of dynamic vocal projection she would have learned in her early days of busking in order to achieve this effect and hear herself—there are no monitor speakers yet. Part of her "scientific sound" is her augmented voice in addition to her guitar. This is "amplification which announces itself,"80 anticipating the future of the blues and rock 'n' roll.

Memphis Minnie electrifies her audience, in part, through the sheer loudness of her playing and singing, boosted by a rhythm section that holds down the lower frequencies, innovations undoubtedly tied to her recording experiences. When she first traveled with McCoy to New York in 1929 after being discovered by a scout for Columbia, they recorded their guitar duets into a microphone, a relatively simple arrangement.81 By the midthirties, as the business of the blues in Chicago was expanding, she occasionally recorded with talent scout and producer Lester Melrose, the architect of the "Bluebird Sound" for RCA Victor / Bluebird records. Melrose capitalized on the burgeoning jukebox market, recalling how after Prohibition, "in February of 1934, taverns were opening up and nearly all of them had juke-boxes for entertainment. I sent a letter, which was just a feeler, to both RCA Victor and Columbia Records, explaining that I had certain blues talent ready to record and that I could locate any amount of rhythm-and-blues talent to meet their demands. … from March, 1934, to February, 1951, I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records."82 Boasts aside, Melrose's influence was pervasive. Though Memphis Minnie only recorded eight sides with him (four in 1937 under the name "Texas Tessie"), she regularly played with many of the musicians working in the Bluebird label's stable. Melrose had essentially assembled a "blues studio orchestra" to more efficiently meet the demands of the jukebox market, resulting in what Mike Rowe refers to as "the greatest rationalization in blues recording" of that time.83

As Minnie worked in the scene, her style changed from playing guitar duets to playing in three- or four-person combos that included, on a few occasions, a mandolin, a clarinet or a trumpet, but most often, the piano, drums, bass, and harmonica, foundational components of the later electrified Chicago blues sound.84 Kernodle notes that "although she retained the rural flavor of her previous recordings, her accompanying lines became less intricate."85 With no rhythm guitarist to back her, she was playing treble riffs and her own bass lines, working with the other instruments in a more "reserved style" and [End Page 91]

Figure 5. National New Yorker, a.k.a. Memphis Minnie Model (1939), Museum of Making Music.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 5.

National New Yorker, a.k.a. Memphis Minnie Model (1939), Museum of Making Music.

[End Page 92]

"supportive role."86 These ensembles and their driving, danceable beat were fashioned with jukebox acoustics and markets in mind. In the process, they reshaped sonic expectations of the live show as well. The live show might have been understood as the origin for the recorded performance, but in equal measure the recorded performance functioned as an origin for the live show. Surely some of the desire to play electric, to play and sing loud, stemmed from artists hearing their own songs amplified over the jukebox.

While not the first to go electric, Memphis Minnie was among a handful of blues guitarists to plug in at the time, including T-Bone Walker in Los Angeles, her friend Big Bill Broonzy and also Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Moody Jones, and Johnny Shines in Chicago.87 Publicity photos from the 1930s show Minnie playing a National Electric Spanish archtop (fig. 5), a hollow body guitar invented in 1935 with pick-ups but no sound or f-holes so as to prevent feedback, a precursor to the first modern solid body electric guitars of the late 1940s.88

As early as 1941, ads in the Chicago Defender highlight "Memphis Minnie on electric guitar" playing with the pianist Roosevelt Sykes and others.89 She is the first blues musician touted as playing electric in the Defender. Around the same time, the paper also mentions a few electric "Hawaiian steel" guitarists and jazz guitarists, including Charlie Christian and Floyd Smith.90 We might recall Sister Rosetta Tharpe's virtuosic gospel/swing/blues stylings on electric guitar as well. Following the lead of Gayle Wald in her exhilarating biography of Tharpe, such a comparison consciously disrupts the genre distinctions that so often obscure the cross-pollination of styles and the formative role of black women in the story of popular music.91 We might also consider how western swing star Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys covered Minnie's hit song from 1930, "What the Matter with the Mill?," in a 1937 rendition that included Leon McAuliffe on electrified steel guitar, a version she undoubtedly heard and perhaps drew inspiration from. By situating Memphis Minnie within this cadre of performers, several things become clear: the electric guitar was new and she was one of its early innovators.

Just how new? In an article published in Down Beat in December 1939 titled "Guitarmen, Wake Up and Pluck," Charlie Christian (or a ghostwriter for Gibson guitars) urges a novel approach: "Take heart. Practice solo stuff, single string and otherwise, and save up a few dimes to amplify your instrument."92 Given Minnie's training and her mastery of the Memphis duet style—her complex fingerpicking over her rhythm accompanist's "boom chuck" strum—the [End Page 93] shift to solo, single-string "stuff" would have likely been an easy transition for her. It is not hard to imagine Memphis Minnie expanding her repertoire and technique based on her own experiences with changing recording technologies and their rich sonic possibilities, creating a new voice for the blues guitar from an older style.93

The Art of Memphis Minnie's Scientific Sound

Memphis Minnie recorded the most popular song of her career, "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," in the spring of 1941, and it was a huge jukebox hit.94 A year later, on August 1, 1942, James Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians, called a recording strike to petition for royalty payments in the battle of musicians against "canned music" (recorded music) that would last two years. Petrillo insisted that with every studio recording that musicians made for a flat fee and no royalties, they nullified their work as live performers. The record potentially replaced the gig, the mainstay of their livelihood. In the midst of the AFM strike, Hughes saw Minnie play, and he wrote his review. If we think of the amplification of the electric guitar in performance in clubs in some sense producing "canned sound" live when musicians can no longer make "canned music" in the studio because of the strike, this innovation makes audible the market duality of the performer's competing live and recorded personas and labor. What Hughes hears in Memphis Minnie's performance of scientific sound is innovation wrought out of the collision between the "canned" and the live, the conflict that fuels the strike. Her plugging in during performance invokes her recorded catalog ("you've heard her songs on record, now hear them live!") but also its studio aesthetics. Her recordings are part of the complex ontology of her "live" performance.95 Her performance undoes the logic of origin and copy as she plays the "canned" live.

In Hughes's listening, Minnie's loud, hard sound loses softness but uniquely conveys the context of her music, its conditions of emergence, its production, circulation, and reception, and also the source of its feeling and form. Her stylized electric turn—its resonance, distortion, amplification, and noise—transforms this context into history, present and past. Which is to say that her live performance is indebted to her recorded sound, as much as her recorded songs exist as a trace of her live repertoire. This reverberation captures the sonic potential of her moment, its historical flow, aesthetic innovation, and emotional range. As her sound washes over the crowd, drowning out other noise, the bodily, listening experience becomes collective.96 As she captures her own acousmatic sound "live," working the grooves of Afro-sonic modernity, she reunites sound and source. She makes audible the larger displacements of [End Page 94] her moment—the precarity of black life and the profound loss, disorientation, and transformation of black communities in the time of the Great Migration on the eve of war.97 Sounding its startling intimacies and estrangements, its itinerant technologies and expressive cultures, Minnie cites her own recorded sound to site it in the embodied scene of performance.

In Hughes's written account of her performance—a trace of the ephemeral—we hear Memphis Minnie going electric to compete with, augment, and perhaps "evade" her commercial recorded self.98 Following Tavia Nyong'o, "liveness … operates in tandem with recording, each pushing the other toward excess."99 Minnie plays with, through, and against the jukebox, her embodied transmission of the blues—her live performance—citing and exceeding her mechanically reproduced jukebox sound. This is a "willful act of self-mediation" and a key aspect of Afro-sonic modernity.100 She exploits the technologies of her moment, courtesy of GE, electrifying the rural Delta style and roughing up the smooth "Bluebird" sound. In Hughes's words, her playing is "made harder and stronger by scientific sound."

Minnie performs on a chair atop an icebox. Based on photos from the time, she wears a guitar strap, a string, to help her move more freely (fig. 6).

Her right hand with the dice ring on it picks out the tune, throbs out the rhythm, beats out the blues. Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. … Big rough old Delta Cities float in the smoke, too. Also border cities, Northern cities, Relief, W.P.A., Muscle Shoals, the jooks, … The hand with the dice-ring picks out music like this. … It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn't it? … It was 1939 and 1935 and 1932 and 1928 and the years that you don't remember when your clothes got shabby and the insurance relapsed. Now, it's 1942—and different. Folks have jobs. Money's circulating again. Relatives are in the Army with big insurances if they die. … Memphis Minnie, at year's end, picks up those nuances and tunes them into the strings of her guitar, weaves them into runs and trills and deep steady chords that come through the amplifiers like the Negro heartbeats mixed with iron and steel.

Like the right letter that never arrives, we have no definitive audio recording of Minnie plugging in at this moment in her career. Hughes's review delivers the news nonetheless, a shadow impression of her full sonic range in print. Hughes listens to Memphis Minnie's performance as a live recording of fleeting memories. In Memphis Minnie's blues, to paraphrase Josh Kun, Hughes hears a "record" of a collective racial past; this "aural epiphany" inspires some of the most lyrical writing of his career.101 Greg Milner writes of how "recordings are the ways we keep in touch with ghosts—by preserving not just the voices of the dead but also the discarded and lingering ideas of who we are and what [End Page 95]

Figure 6. Publicity photo of Memphis Minnie. Alamy Stock Photo. Frank Driggs Collection.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 6.

Publicity photo of Memphis Minnie. Alamy Stock Photo. Frank Driggs Collection.

[End Page 96]

we want."102 Minnie's "scientific sound" rehearses Hurston's backward-looking account of the jook joint and the Delta collectors' forward-looking account, too. As she "beats out the blues," in Daphne Brooks's elucidation, she "pounds out the beat of overlooked histories through her body."103 Her amplification defies origin stories that insist either on rural pasts or only on urban futures.

No doubt, Minnie sings her recent jukebox hits, such as "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" (1941), "Look the World Over" (1941), and "Can't Afford to Lose My Man" (1941). Hughes may have derived the structure of his review from the retrospective cast of songs like "Girlish Days" and "Ma Rainey" where Minnie, north of forty, recalls her first strivings at romance and earlier moments of fandom and encounter with the blues queens who proceeded her. "Ma Rainey," a eulogy, is one of the few songs where she invokes another musician: "I was thinking about Ma Rainey, wonder where could Ma Rainey be / I been looking for her, even been 'n old Tennessee."104 Rainey, who was often promoted as the Mother of the Blues, had died in 1939. Minnie repeats Ma Rainey's name as if to bring her back and then explains why she feels so bereft: "She was born in Georgia, traveled all over this world / And she's the best blues singer, peoples, I ever heard." Significantly, what moves Minnie to tears is not a recollection of Rainey's famed performances (celebrated in the poet Sterling Brown's 1932 "Ma Rainey") but Rainey's popular recording of "Bo-Weavil Blues" from 1923: "I was living way down the line / Every time I hear that record, I just couldn't keep from crying." What she is left with is the record, a kind of phantom approximation, endlessly playable. Yet there will be no more live performances or new records. Minnie positions herself as a blues fan, one of the many black women listeners who made up a significant portion of the market for blues records. It is out of this position, as fan and listener, that her own creativity emerges and that she joins a larger black counterpublic created in the strains of black women's artistry.105 Minnie follows this with a stanza of sustained tremolo moans, "Hmmmm, hmmmmm," the ur phrase of the blues, a rumination on loss, that also invokes Rainey's plangent contralto opening of "Bo-Weavil Blues," where she plays her voice like a trumpet with a mute, bending her phrasing to express her ambivalence about the dueling prospects of poisonous romantic entanglement or being forever alone.106

Minnie's moan is the sound of lament, of loss for the performer who best vocalized loss before her. But Minnie's moan is also the sound of homage and influence.107 In her blues about Rainey's absence, she inserts herself as the rightful inheritor of Rainey's reign: "People it sure look lonesome since Ma [End Page 97] Rainey been gone / But she left little Minnie to carry the good works on." This shameless self-assertion most pointedly establishes her claim to Rainey's blues mantle. Rainey's inheritor would do no less. Minnie self-consciously situates herself within the blues tradition by way of Ma Rainey, establishing a link between the classic blues era and the jukebox era of the blues out of which the Chicago sound will soon emerge, where black women musicians are progenitors of the tradition.108 "Ma Rainey" is a pop song whose intimacies are animated by nostalgic recollections of earlier expressions of desire, in life and on record, and the promise of pleasures yet to come.

Back to the Club

Minnie plays electric to override the noise of the crowd. But we might also imagine that she plugs in to play louder than the jukebox, the jukebox she has used to great effect in promoting her career, the machine that likely first broadcast her music to the audience she now plays for. Hughes writes that her "voice, the words, the melody get lost under sheer noise, leaving only the rhythm to come through clear." The lower frequencies constitute "the heartbeat" of her music, grounding the noise in history, in the creative persistence of black life.

Hughes contrasts Minnie's performance with the unsmiling white men who run the club, ringing up sales on the cash register—men who do not move in time with the music but still profit from the partial/martial inclusion of black people in the wartime economy: "Memphis Minnie's music is harder than the coins that roll across the counter." Hughes asks rhetorically: "Does that mean that she understands? Or is it just science that makes the guitar strings so hard and loud?" As the club owners count their money, she conveys something harder within and in excess of this economy. Her performance sounds an alternative temporality of black modernity, one that moves forward by a critical remembrance of things past but in a different technological register. The sound may travel, and the musician and fans may, too, but "negro heartbeats" sustain these new forms of intimacy and sociality, here, now, there and then. Her playing amplifies the essential logic of recording itself, the preservation of a past performance that plays now and gestures toward the future, fiercely, insistently calling up what Erik Davis describes as "a new ghostworld of sound."109 Indeed, if the conception of recording changes in the 1930s from a notion of preserving an event to the creation of calculated effects, Minnie brings this calculation to her live performance.110 Sonically, this is how she makes meaning of past and present. This is her scientific sound. Harder, louder—this is the pleasure in her play. [End Page 98]

Sonnet Retman

Sonnet Retman is associate professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington, where she teaches courses on African American literature, cinema, and popular music. She is the author of Real Folks: Race and Genre in the Great Depression (Duke University Press, 2011) and a collaborator with the Women Who Rock Research and Digital Archive Project. She is currently working on a book about black popular music, recording technology, memory, and migration in the early twentieth century.


. I thank the following people for helping me shape this essay: the readers and editors for American Quarterly, Mary Pat Brady, Daphne Brooks, Michelle Habell-Pallán, Kate McCullough, RJ Smith, Sherrie Tucker, Alys Weinbaum, Elijah Wald, Gayle Wald, and Deborah Wong; the Mediating Difference Group, including Habiba Ibrahim, Ralina Joseph, LeiLani Nishime, Ileana Rodriguez-Silva, Stephanie Smallwood, and Sasha Welland; and the Women Who Rock Research Project.

1. JoBeth Briton, "The Forgotten Queen: Was Memphis Minnie the Mother of Electric Blues Guitarists?," Worcester Phoenix, June 20–27,

2. Langston Hughes, "Here to Yonder," Chicago Defender, January 9, 1943. Hereafter cited in the text.

3. Pete Welding, liner notes, I Ain't No Bad Gal (CBS Master Portraits, 1988). In the songs recorded in December 1941, Welding suggests that Memphis Minnie plays an electrically amplified guitar accompanied by "Little Son Joe" Lawler's acoustic guitar and Alfred Elkins's string bass. Jas Obrecht suggests that Minnie played electric on three of the songs recorded in May 1941: "In My Girlish Days," "Down by the Riverside," and "I Got to Make a Change Blues." See "Let It Roll: Memphis Minnie," Women of the Blues, II, Living Blues Magazine, number 262, July–August 2019, The blues musician Del Rey notes how Minnie's "recorded output is not necessarily the same as her live set." See "Guitar Queen: The Groundbreaking Blues of Memphis Minnie, from Delta Styles to the Chicago Sound," Acoustic Guitar, no. 33, September 1995, 52–61.

4. W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues (New York: Da Capo, 1941), 78.

5. Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 11.

6. Samuel Charters, The Bluesman (New York: Oak Publications, 1967), 27–32.

7. Ted Gioia, Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 16.

8. Gioia, 4, x.

9. Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: New Press, 1993), xiii.

10. Lomax, 358.

11. Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 3.

12. Hamilton, In Search of the Blues, 12, 13.

13. Alexander Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 7.

14. Weheliye, 19–20.

15. Hazel Carby, "They Put a Spell on You," in Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America (New York: Verso, 1999), 52; Marcus Charles Tribbett, "'Everybody Wants to Buy My Kitty': Resistance and the Articulation of the Sexual Subject in the Blues of Memphis Minnie," Arkansas Review 29.1 (1998): 42, 44; Roy Blount Jr., "Memphis Minnie: Her Own Blues," Oxford American Sixth Annual Southern Music Issue, no. 45 (April 2003): 96.

16. Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis, 2nd ed., with CD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 210.

17. Robert M. W. Dixon and John Godrich, Recording the Blues (New York: Stein and Day, 1970), 80; Paul Garon and Beth Garon, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, rev. and expanded ed. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014), 297; Elijah Wald, The Blues: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 25.

18. Zora Neale Hurston, "Characteristics of Negro Expression," in The Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston (Berkeley, CA: Turtle Island, 1981), 62–63.

19. Samuel Adams, "Changing Negro Life in the Delta," in Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), 269.

20. Lewis W. Jones, "The Mississippi Delta," in Gordon and Nemerov, Lost Delta Found, 259.

21. Edward P. Commentale, Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 9.

22. Andre Millard, America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 169.

23. Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 9; Lewis, "Mississippi Delta," 34–35.

24. Zora Neale Hurston, "Polk County," in Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays, ed. Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 273.

25. Vincent Lynch and Bill Hankin, Jukebox: The Golden Age (New York: Putnam, 1983), 8.

26. "Plays Twelve Records," New York Times, April 14, 1928; Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music (New York: Verso, 1995), 88; Katrina Hazzard Gordon, Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple, 1990), 112; J. Krivine, Saturday Night Jukebox (London: New English Library, 1977), 22; Lynch and Hankin, Jukebox, 9, 10.

27. Lynch and Hankin, Jukebox, 22.

28. Titon, Early Downhome Blues, 21; Lynch and Hankin, Jukebox, 9.

29. Kelly Segrave, Jukeboxes: An American Social History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), 45; Wald, Escaping the Delta, 96.

30. Millard, America on Record, 160; Richard Osborne, Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 118.

31. Segrave, Jukeboxes, 100–101.

32. Allen, quoted in Segrave, 100–101.

33. Osborne, Vinyl, 119.

34. Segrave, Jukeboxes, 101.

35. "Ed Ratajack Answers Jukebox Music Critic," Billboard, August 31, 1959, 84.

36. Segrave, Jukeboxes, 17.

37. "Home Jukes Editorial," Billboard, September 15, 1945, 76; "Why Are Phonos Called Juke Organs?," Billboard, February 24, 1940, 69; Rick Botts, A Complete Identification Guide to the Wurlitzer Jukebox (Des Moines, IA: Jukebox Collector Newsletter, 1984), 3; "Arkansas' Gov. Cherry First to Hail Juke Week," Billboard, May 23, 1953, 62; Segrave, Jukeboxes, 114.

38. Hazel Carby, "It Jus Be's Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Black Women's Blues," in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O'Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 476.

39. Francis Davis, The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (New York: Da Capo, 2003), 8.

40. Lynch, Jukebox, 10.

41. Dixon and Goodrich, Recording, 80.

42. "Amusement Machines: Folk Record Review," Billboard, February 24, 1945, 75.

43. Davis, History of the Blues, 143.

44. Davis, 144.

45. Hortense Spillers, "'Whatcha Gonna Do?'—Revisiting 'Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book': A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan," The Sexual Body, special issue, Women's Studies Quarterly 35.1–2 (2007): 308.

46. Jeremiah Sullivan, "The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie," New York Times, April 13, 2014,

47. Bruce Bastin, Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 106; Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 33; Tammy L. Kernodle, "Having Her Say: The Blues as the Black Woman's Lament," in Women's Voices Across Musical Worlds, ed. Jane A. Bernstein (Boston: Northeastern University, 2004), 217, 220.

48. Quoted in Blount, "Memphis Minnie," 96.

49. Quoted in Jas Obrecht, "Otis Rush," in Rollin' and Tumblin': The Postwar Blues Guitarists, ed. Jas Obrecht (San Francisco: Miller Freeman/Backbeat Books, 2000), 235.

50. Sherrie Tucker, "Beyond the Brass Ceiling: Dolly Jones Trumpets Modernity in Oscar Micheaux's Swing!," Jazz Perspectives 3.1 (2009): 4. Weheliye asks, "What new modes of thinking, being, listening and becoming are set in motion by all the cultural idioms included here [sound, technology, and black culture]. The answer: Afro-sonic modernity" (Phonographies, 10).

51. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 32–34; Tribbett, "'Everybody Wants to Buy My Kitty,'" 42–46; Paige McGinley, Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 23–24.

52. Tucker, "Beyond the Brass Ceiling," 23.

53. Tucker, 23.

54. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 36.

55. This account is difficult to verify but represents the scholarship on her early life to date.

56. Quoted in Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 37.

57. Paul Oliver, Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2009), 72; Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 42.

58. Del Rey, "Guitar Queen," 59.

59. Kernodle, "Having Her Say," 219.

60. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 59.

61. Kernodle, "Having Her Say," 221.

62. O'Neal, foreword to Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 16.

63. "Tipping You Off to the Doings in COLUMBUS, OHIO," Chicago Defender, August 21, 1937, 8.

64. "Night Club Jive," Chicago Defender, January 24, 1942, 21.

65. Maria V. Johnson, "Black Woman Electric Guitarists and Authenticity in the Blues," in Black Women and Music: More Than the Blues, ed. Eileen Hayes and Linda Williams (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 45.

66. Quoted in Mike Rowe, Chicago Blues: The City and the Music (New York: Da Capo, 1981), 43.

67. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 69.

68. Garon and Garon, 62.

69. Blount, "Memphis Minnie," 96.

70. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 91.

71. Edward Komara, Encyclopedia of the Blues, A–J, vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387; Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 103–4.

72. Quoted in Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (Newton, NJ: Rock Chapel Press, 1988), 158.

73. Tucker, "Beyond the Brass Ceiling," 8.

74. Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 18.

75. Tim Wall, Studying Popular Music Culture, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2013), 57.

76. Wall, 46–47.

77. Wall, 17.

78. Susan Schmidt-Horning, Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 227n17.

79. Peter Doyle, "Ghosts of Electricity: Amplification" in The SAGE Handbook of Popular Music, ed. Andy Bennett and Steve Waksman (London: SAGE Publications LTD., 2015), 538.

80. Doyle, 544.

81. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 46.

82. Lester Melrose, "My Life in Recording," American Folk Music Occasional, no. 2, ed. Chris Strachwitz and Pete Welding (New York: Oak Publications, 1970), 60.

83. Rowe, Chicago Blues, 17.

84. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 68–69.

85. Kernodle, "Having Her Say," 221–22.

86. Kernodle, 221–22.

87. Obrecht, Rollin' and Tumblin', 8; Jas Obrecht, Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth Century Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, in Association with the Southern Folklife Collection, the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, 2017), 17.

88. Michael John Simmons, "Catch of the Day: 1941 National New Yorker Electric Spanish," Fretboard Journal (June 2014),; Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 109.

89. "Chicago Boasts Cotton Club Just Like Harlem," Chicago Defender, December 27, 1941, 19.

90. Native Hawaiians invented the steel guitar and electric guitar, sonic innovations that emerged out of the rich and complex tradition of native Hawaiian guitar culture from the mid-nineteenth century forward. During the 1920s and 1930s, professional musicians such as Sol Ho'opi'i, Dick McIntire, and Eddie Bush popularized the sound of the acoustic, then electric, Hawaiian steel guitar in the continental US. See John W. Troutman, Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 4–6, 130–31, 135–37.

91. Gayle F. Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (New York: Beacon, 2007), ix.

92. Charlie Christian, "Guitarmen, Wake Up and Pluck: Wire for Sound; Let 'Em Hear You Play," Down Beat, December 1, 1939.

93. Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cam-bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

94. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 74.

95. Doyle, "Ghosts," 16.

96. Waksman, Instruments of Desire, 1.

97. McGinley, Staging the Blues, 38.

98. Tavia Nyong'o, "'Rip It Up': Excess and Ecstasy in Little Richard's Sound," in Black Performance Theory, ed. Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 176.

99. Nyong'o, 176.

100. Commentale, Sweet Air, 6.

101. Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Race, Music, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 92.

102. Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever, 25.

103. Daphne A. Brooks, "'Sister, Can You Line It Out?': Zora Neale Hurston and the Sound of Angular Black Womanhood," Amerikastudien / American Studies 55.4 (2010): 626.

104. "Ma Rainey," recorded June 27, 1940 (Okeh, 05811), record.

105. Garon and Garon, Woman with Guitar, 297–98; Titon, Early Downhome Blues, 282; McGinley, Staging the Blues, 34.

106. Sandra R. Lieb, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), 87–88.

107. Tribbett, "'Everybody Wants to Buy My Kitty,'" 42.

108. McGinley, Staging the Blues, 23.

109. Erik Davis, Led Zeppelin IV (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), 162.

110. Daniela Furini, "From Recording Performances to Performing Recordings: Recording Technology and Shifting Ideologies of Authorship in Popular Music," Trans: Revista Transcultural de Música 14 (2010): 1–8.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.