“I’ve been all over the world/I’ve seen almost everything/I’ve sung all kinds of places/People call me the queen.” That’s the start of the middle verse from the modern blues standard “Mississippi Woman,” a gritty song that’s been handed up and down the muddy banks of the mighty river that bears its name and passed along like a secret from the hills of Holly Springs to the juke joints of Memphis and into the hands of Elizabeth Wise, a young folk singer and guitarist who possesses what they used to call an old soul. With a slide in her left hand and conviction in her voice, Wise inhabits the lines that come next, delivering them as a mystical incantation and a purposeful statement of fact. “No matter where I go y’all/I give them something real/People all over the world/Need that Mississippi feel.’
Wise has indeed travelled the world and truly lived in it, from the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and on up the James River to the “Richmondtown” she reflects wistfully on in one of her many original compositions. From the aforementioned juke joints of Memphis and folk clubs in Manhattan to the wilds of New Zealand, where she spent a year communing with her restless muse and spreading her respect for the blues. From her formative years playing piano and singing church music, to her coming of age as a fully formed folk artist steeped in traditions that trace their roots back to Appalachian hills, Kentucky bluegrass, and, of course, the blues of the Delta. As the Memphis Blues Society noted, Wise is “authentic yet refreshingly original,” and “a blueswoman at the dawn of a superb career.”
That career now spans more than a decade of performing professionally in bars, clubs, and living rooms, and on festival stages up and down the East Coast. Of listening to, learning from, and living with the music that inspires her. Of sharing her passion for great songs and good times, in solo settings with an acoustic guitar and in more raucous environs backed by a full band.
Over that time, Wise has continued to evolve as a singer, a guitarist, a songwriter, and a canny interpreter of traditional folk forms. Her songbook has grown to include her tenacious yet nuanced takes on timeless blues tunes popularize by artists like Elmore James, Memphis Minnie, and Sippie Wallace, swing-era classics by the great Duke Ellington, and songbook standards by Irving Berlin. And she has continued to channel her experiences into original material, which ranges form the gutsy and defiant groove of “Stayin’ Right Here,” to the achingly pretty sigh of “I Wish I Had the Voice,” to the funked up drive “Headed to the Swamp.”
In the words of New York musician Kenny White, one of the seasoned songwriters Wise has been fortunate enough to share a stage with, she has emerged as one of those rare artist who can mine deeply from the past while moving steadfastly forward with her work. To quote White: “Faithfully carrying on the traditions of Elizabeth Cotton and Malvina Reynolds (with a dose of Bessie Smith, for good measure), Elizabeth Wise is a vital link who connects us to this fast fading golden era, and breathes new life into it.” Or, to borrow from “Mississippi Woman,” no matter where Wise goes she brings something real… and people still do very much need “that Mississippi feel.”