By Christina Marie Dietz
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
Laura Dukes, also known as Little Laura or Little Bit, was a crucial part of early Jug Band music in Memphis, Tennessee – though she was often uncredited and is still today too little known. Her life carries inspiration to me as a singer and as a black woman.
Little Laura’s life, as one should expect, was centered around music. Her father was a drummer for W.C. Handy and her brother was a singer and blind man named Will Dukes. She sang and played music all her life, even after she settled down and made a family. Ms. Dukes hailed from a town that she said was named Crematory Place, Tennessee. “This is my home, see, I’ve been here all of my life. My people’s home, also, my son. Memphis is my home”.
There are many parts of Laura’s life that I am hopeful will become a part of mine. She traveled around, got onstage to sing and dance just for the love of it, and learned new things from the people around her. Laura Dukes wasn’t a musician for the fame, she just caught the music bug. She sang music because it made her feel good down in her bones.
When her career started out, around 1928, she was in her twenties. Ms. Dukes sang as a chorus girl for a band of minstrels that traveled to carnivals in different towns and different states. In 1933, a few years later, she was taught the ukulele. Within a few years she was playing alongside Will Batts (violinist-singer-guitarist) and Wilfred Bell or Birdbreath (kazoo) as a member of the Memphis Jug Band, founded by Will Shade, a musical genius also known as Son or Sun Brimmer, who incorporated different musicians and music styles such as blues, jazz, ragtime and gospel into the band’s style.
As I listened to the Memphis Jug Band I hoped to hear more of the relatively obscure Little Laura, which of course, eventually happened. It was uplifting and ultimately quite fun chasing down information on her because of all the music I listened to. Her gumption makes clear to me what a travesty it is that she went virtually unnoticed for so long.
Laura Dukes was a soulful singer, spirited dancer, and a rhythmic ukulele player, who was barely ever credited for her work. A lot of her music wasn’t even released until the early 60s – fifteen to twenty years after it was recorded! She was hardly recognized (by those outside of Memphis, Tennessee), written about or interviewed until round about that same time. It was 1961 when Laura’s version of “Stack O’Lee Blues” was released on the radio by Wolf Records, followed by “Crawdad”.
While doing research on Ms. Dukes, I listened to more of her songs that were released far too late. They made me listen. She was telling me a story. She, and other musicians if her time, were trying to tell us about their lives: The good in it, and the bad. They performed to tell us something important, to make us laugh out loud and blush beet red. Their stories are well told, too, and not just because of the words but because of the feeling in it – the tone.
What I find most inspiring about Laura Dukes is that, no matter how she was perceived by the public, Laura loved music the way I love music: it just makes you feel good down to your bones. When she sang she sounded, to me, like she knew how to love.
Laura’s life paralleled mine in so many ways and yet I couldn’t possibly understand what is was like to live in her time. She reminds me that what we do with our lives is only as great as we perceive it. Laura Dukes demonstrated how to love music and live through it in a time when the color of your skin meant more to people than who you were.
Christina Marie Dietz is a musician and teacher from Chimacum, WA. She developed her voice in her church choir starting at the age of 5. She frequently busks aboard the Bainbridge Ferry accompanying herself on ukelele. In April she will begin a weekly residency performing her music at Machine House Brewery in Seattle.
Featured Image: Detail from “Little Laura Dukes” painting by ©Amy Crehore