“This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this is her favourite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number. Of course, to get in on it, to try to learn it, I made myself the . . . the can rusher.” Jelly Roll Morton
Mamie Desdunes was a well known blues woman from New Orleans, famous for playing with two fingers and a thumb on her right hand after the middle two fingers were amputated. Why? We don’t know. But her influence on the young Morton was tremendous, and he would listen to her singing and playing the piano as much as he could.
Cornetist Bunk Johnson in an interview with Alan Lomax, said: “I knew Mamie [Desdunes] real well. Played many a concert with her singing those same blues. She was pretty good looking – quite fair and with a nice head of hair. She was a hustling woman. A blues-singing poor girl. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing at her place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up.”
Mary Celina Desdunes was a Creole woman born sometime before 1880 to one Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, French speaking descendant of wealthy Haitian immigrants, and his love Clementine Walker, problematic as Rodolphe was currently married to, and living with, Mathilde Cheval and their six children. Mamie lived with her mother, Clementine Walker, grandparents, John and Ophelia Walker, and her siblings, John and Edna, all from Rodolphe. Morton said he knew her when she lived near his godmother in the Garden District, but current research has found that Mamie lived two doors up the road from Morton’s mother at 149 Urquhart Street in New Orleans.
She would have learned the piano at school, most likely, and then developed her talent at the French Quarter and the Tremé, listening to the early jazz and blues there, as well as the Delta blues brought down from the Mississippi by the riverboats. New Orleans was a transient place with people constantly coming and going, bringing music, food, art etc with them, turning the city into a hot melting pot of culture.
Bunk’s quote seems to show that Mamie would have been a regular performer at the brothels and bar in Storyville, the infamous red light district of New Orleans created by city alderman, Sidney Story, to control prostitution. It was a popular destination for music, drink, good times, and many musicians got their start in Storyville, including Morton, and Buddy Bolden. Brothel owners such as Lulu White played a huge part in a musician’s development with any detrimental affect on their reputation. How and what they could play was much more important to the discerning listeners. Music and entertainment was a large part of their offering and the better the brothel, the better the musician and they more they would get paid.
One of the first known ever blues singers, Ann Cook, worked in for the famous Willie Piazza as a prostitute and as a singer. I’ll see what I can dig up on her, in the meanwhile, enjoy this number https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAAS0CMrnHs
Mamie Desdunes died from tuberculosis in New Orleans on 4th December 1911, aged 32 years old.