The Late Movies: Even (Cow)girls Get the Blues


Ransom and I have both done Late Movies posts on blues music before, and they've gotten great responses, so I won't fix anything that isn't broken. Tonight, though, is Ladies Night, featuring great blues musicians with two X chromosomes who've made their mark in a genre dominated by men. Hit it, ladies!

Big Mama Thornton - Hound Dog
Only hearing Elvis Presley's version of this song is sort of like only ever drinking light beer or eating imitation crab meat or jarred spaghetti sauce. Once you get a taste of the real thing, it's like you've been living life with the volume turned down and the color washed out. Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton recorded this Leiber and Stoller tune, which they brought in written on the back of a paper bag, in 1952. In the studio, Thornton worked the song like a ball of clay, playing around with the rhythm, adding extra bars to choruses, getting the band to bark and growl and moving the downbeat of her lines a round almost constantly. This video is from a live TV presentation of the 1965 European tour of the American Blues and Folk Festival, featuring Buddy Guy on guitar.

Mamie Smith - Crazy blues

Despite the fact that Mamie "The Queen of Blues" Smith wasn't much of a blues singer and only sometimes included blues numbers into her vaudeville act, she made history when she made the first vocal blues recordings by an African American in 1920. One of the songs recorded was "Crazy Blues," which sold a million copies in one year and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and chosen for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Ann Cole - Got My Mojo Workin'
Preston Foster's 1956 song "Got My Mojo Working" was first recorded by Ann Cole, and popularized by Muddy Waters a year later. When Waters attempted to copyright his modified version of the song, Waters' and Coles' record companies settled out of and the court the two versions are still separately copyrighted. Both versions have been covered by numerous artists, like Conway Twitty, Manfred Mann, The Zombies, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. For me, though, Cole's original stands well above the others.

Susan Tedeschi - Hurt So Bad
Susan Tedeschi (te-DES-ki) made her debut public performance at 6 years old in a Broadway musical. She later got her B.A. in musical composition and performance from the Berklee College of Music and immersed herself in the Boston blues scene. Since the release of her second album, Just Won't Burn, she's become one of the most recognizable women in blues. Here she is live at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, Rhode Island in 2007.

Koko Taylor ft. Little Walter - Wang Dang Doodle
Chess records songwriter Willie Dixon wrote "Wang Dang Doodle" for Howlin' Wolf, but both Wolf and Dixon wound up hating it. For whatever reason, the versions recorded by women (Koko Taylor, the Pointer Sisters, PJ Harvey) tend to be better than those done by men (the Grateful Dead, Ted Nugent).

Cassandra Wilson "Death letter"
Grammy winner Wilson is better known as a jazz singer and her version of Son House's signature "Death Letter" manages both to reflect her background and amplify the emotional weight of the song.

Gillian Welch - Elvis Presley Blues + The Weight (w/ Old Crow Medicine Show)
Gillian Welch is a little bit of country, a little bit of Appalachian folk, a little bit of blues and a little bit of bluegrass, depending on the song, but she's always sparse, always dark and always just a little bit unnerving, which is sort of how my favorite musicians, blues or otherwise, tend to be. Both of these songs come from the BBC Four Sessions in 2007.