Born: October 6, 1934 | Died: June 24, 2008 Primary Instrument: Guitar
Jesse Mae Hemphill - vocal, guitar, drum tambourine, multi instrumentalist (1940 - 2004)
A regular performer at blues festivals as late as the early 1990s, Jessie Mae Hemphill, outfitted in a sequined hat and shiny purple halter top, stood out onstage for her age as well as her appearance. With a wink in her eye and a gold tooth flashing, Hemphill played guitar, bells attached to her legs, her foot tapping a tambourine. The music of her one-woman band was haunting--familiar, yet new. It drew from the traditions of North Mississippi Delta region--music born of slavery, reared in poverty, and perfected on the farmland. Hemphill played it with her own style, updating classic lyrics with her own words. Her distinctive mix of new and old Delta traditions with day-to-day observations, won Hemphill international acclaim as a blues woman. She, however, was just carrying on the family tradition.
Hemphill was born Jessie Mae Graham in Senatobia, Mississippi. Though some sources cite her birth date as 1932 or 1934, the majority agrees that she was born in 1937 on October 18th. Whatever the date, one thing is sure--Hemphill was born with music in her blood. Her father, James Graham, was a blues pianist and her mother, Virgie Lee Graham, was skilled in many instruments, though she did not identify herself as a musician. Hemphill has said that, although her mother was not interested in playing music, her Aunt Rosa was, and she believed that they both inherited their passion for music from Hemphill's maternal grandfather, Sid Hemphill. The elder Hemphill was a well-known leader of fife-and-drum groups and had a successful career that spanned fifty years.
Fife-and-drum, a traditional music native to the North Mississippi Delta region, has long interested ethnomusicologists because of its links to African musical styles. Sid Hemphill recorded with famed musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940s. Sid Hemphill, in turn, had his musical roots sown by his father, Doc Hemphill, a Choctaw Indian and famed fiddler. This rich generational musical heritage has driven Jessie Mae Hemphill's own musical career.
With such a musical pedigree it was almost inevitable that Hemphill would become a musician at an early age. She was eight years old when she began to learn guitar. When I was little, she told Guitar Player, my granddaddy started me off to playing guitar, and I started off playing blues. I liked the spirituals, but I played the blues because I thought that would get me somewhere in the money line faster than the spirituals would. The first complete song she learned was her Aunt Rosa Lee's Bullyin' Well which later appeared on her album “She-Wolf.”
Following her grandfather's lead as a multi-instrumentalist, Hemphill did not confine herself to just the guitar. She soon began learning drums and eventually picked up the tambourine, fife, flute, trombone, saxophone, harmonica, and piano. As a teen she began to perform and even won contests for her tambourine skills. Further cementing her link with her heritage, Hemphill learned to play instruments with clear African roots, including the quills--homemade cane pipes similar to panpipes--and the diddley bow, a one-stringed instrument that is plucked or played with a glass bottle. However, it was for the guitar, drum, and tambourine that Hemphill became best known. Hemphill learned from listening to her relatives, noting for Guitar Player that her Aunt Rosa showed her how to play songs. Hemphill also said that she had to learn how to make the sound in my head.
During the 1950s and 1960s, though she was already a skilled performer, Hemphill worked a series of menial jobs including stints in grocery stores and dry cleaners. She moved to Memphis during this time and, while still a teenager, married J. D. Brooks. Music found its way back into Hemphill's life when she landed a job at a Memphis blues club. This led to her running her own club for a brief while. It wasn't until the 1970s that Hemphill would turn to her inherited role as a musician full-time.
When her marriage ended, Hemphill left Memphis and returned to Mississippi and her musical roots. She dropped her married name and adopted her more famous family name. About this time Hemphill caught the attention of Dr. David Evans, a noted ethnomusicologist, blues scholar, and talented musician in his own right. In the liner notes of Hemphill's album, She-Wolf, Evans wrote, I was struck with what a fresh approach she had to an old style of music. He continued, She had drawn on the deepest traditions of the blues and African-American folk music to create truly contemporary country blues, not nostalgic recreations of an earlier musical era.
In 1979 Evans received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to record and produce Mississippi blues music. Under his tutelage the High Water Recording Company was created as a division of the University of Memphis. One of its first artists was Hemphill. That first recording featured the Hemphill original compositions, Jessie's Boogie and Standing in My Doorway Crying. The latter became a hit and was the top selling record on the High Water label. Following this success, Evans introduced Hemphill to the French label Vogue Records who promptly signed her to record her first album, “She-Wolf.”
Shortly following the release of “She-Wolf,” Vogue Records changed artistic direction and as a result She-Wolf languished with little promotion and no stateside audience. The album wouldn't be released in the United States until the late 1990s. The inertia of She-Wolf couldn't stop Hemphill and she kept right on playing, writing music, and developing her distinct, hypnotic sound. London's The Independent described Hemphill as a powerful and mesmerizing performer who is like a female version of John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf combined. The blues establishment also took notice and Hemphill won the esteemed W.C. Handy Award for Traditional Female Artist of the Year in both 1987 and 1988.
In 1990 her second album, “Feelin' Good,” was released on Evans's High Water label. With this album Hemphill drew the attention of blues aficionados from around the globe. One reviewer wrote on the Harmony Ridge Music website, She's haunting, sexy, and full of the raw energy only someone with the blues in their blood can be. The album also scored Hemphill another Handy award in 1991 for Acoustic Album of the Year. Hemphill penned most of the songs on “Feelin' Good.” Drawing from traditional blues topics of love lost and found, poverty and hard work, sex and salvation, Hemphill continued a tradition of singing for and of the people. She told Guitar Player, [The songs] don't be all from me ... It be what I think other-folks is feeling--the trouble that other womens is having. All us women have the same kind of trouble with our guys. Some of my blues is kinda sad blues, 'cause sometimes I be feeling down and out, and I know some other womens do too. So I play them so it will hit somebody.
Hemphill's fame reached its peak in the early 1990s. She was in demand at blues festivals and concerts all over the United States and Europe. As the general public lapped up her music, it also stirred the interest of academic folklorists. Hemphill performed for folklore societies in Memphis and Washington D.C. Jessie Mae's strongest musical influences come from her family and the local folk music tradition near her home in Como, Mississippi, wrote Evans. Those traditions include the fife-and-drum of which Hemphill told www.mississippitalking.com, [It was] my granddaddy's music, it came from Africa. My granddaddy knew it, and his daddy knew it too. Even with her hectic schedule, Hemphill managed to find time to perform with fife-and-drum groups back home in Mississippi.
As her fame was spreading, so was her reputation as a real She-Wolf of the blues. On stage Hemphill nurtured a sexuality normally reserved for male singers. She wore sequins and low cut tops, and flirted with the audience. Photographer Bill Steber, who has photographed many traditional blues musicians, wrote on his website: Female blues guitarists of Hemphill's generation are rare because of the social strictures and danger associated with the lifestyle. Jessie Mae, however, has always known how to take care of herself in a hostile world. 'My mother carried her gun all the time,' says Hemphill. 'She was a pistol-packing mama so I'm a pistol-packing mama'. Her willingness to step outside traditional female roles was also expressed in her songwriting and performing.
In 1994 Hemphill won her fourth Handy Award, again for Traditional Female Artist of the Year, and her career seemed destined to continue its phenomenal growth. However, a debilitating stroke left her partially paralyzed, making it impossible for her to play guitar again. Though her career effectively came to a halt, her fame continued to grow. In 1997 “Feelin' Good” was revamped and reissued on CD by the HighTone Records label. A year later, “She-Wolf” was finally released in the United States, also on HighTone Records. The releases once-again stirred the interests of blues lovers and scholars, making Hemphill something of a cult icon in the blues community.
In November of 2001 she sang and played tambourine as part of the The North Mississippi Hill Country, a concert in Brooklyn Heights, New York that brought her together with other homegrown Mississippi talent, including legends Otha Turner and T-Model Ford, as well as more famous newcomers Lucinda Williams, the North Mississippi All-Stars, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The concert was filmed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders for The Blues, a PBS series.
Despite her continuing fame and ever-growing audience, Hemphill's life was still a struggle. This daughter of the North Mississippi Delta blues, homegrown fourth generation blues musician, innovator and tradition saver, lived alone for many years in a ramshackle trailer in Como, Mississippi with her pet poodles. However, organizations such as the Sunflower River Blues Association of Clarksdale, Mississippi, whose aim is to assist blues pioneers who have fallen on hard times, helped Hemphill find better housing. She passed in June of 2006.
Hemphill has also not been forgotten by cultural historians. Students in Mississippi have written about her life as part of The Mississippi Writers and Musicians Project, which shares the rich cultural tradition of Mississippi with high school students. And she speaks to students as part of the Blues Project of George Mason University. One student wrote on the Blues Project website of a 2000 visit, When we met Jessie Mae Hemphill ... she seemed to have a great perspective on how the music brought the community together for celebration and to share their lives with each other ... As we sat and listened to her I felt as if we were hearing her own history as a blues woman, but it also told me what life has been like as a whole in the Delta for the past century.
Source: Candace Laballe