Women and music

Want to know about kickass women in folk songs?

Memphis Minnie

Born in Louisiana in 1897, blues legend Memphis Minnie taught herself to play acoustic guitar before running away to Memphis at the age of 13 where she played the guitar on the streets for money. By the time she was 31 she was such an accomplished songwriter and finger-style guitarist she’d landed herself a recording contract. It was the start of a 40-year career during which Minnie became one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time. She was one of the first blues musicians to use an electric guitar and would often challenge her male contemporaries such as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters to guitar duels in blues clubs and win hands down according to the ecstatic cheers and whoops of the audience.

She was also a prolific songwriter, penning almost 200 songs during her career. One of these songs ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was covered by Led Zepplin in 1971 gaining Minnie some long-overdue recognition before her death two years later.

But sadly, that recognition was short lived. While the names of her male contemporaries such as BB King and John Lee Hooker remain celebrated to this day, Minnie’s contribution to the world of music has largely been forgotten. Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy once said of Minnie ‘she could pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard’. But that fails to do Minnie justice. She wasn’t a great female guitarist – she was a great musician, end of.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta was a flamboyant guitarist, songwriter and gospel singer from Arkansas who rose to fame in the late 1930’s, influencing musical legends such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Trust us, this woman could really rock!

The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, BBC Four

Wanda Jackson

An American rockabilly singer and guitarist, Wanda rose to fame in the 1950’s before fading to obscurity in the late 1960’s. Her career was revived in 2003 when she recorded an album featuring Elvis Costello and punk-rockabilly legends The Cramps.

In 2009 she started recording some new songs with Jack White of The White Stripes which will hopefully bring her glorious country roll & roll singing and guitar playing to a whole new generation.


Copyright: Dawn Smith, 2010