Jessie Mae Hemphill

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Jessie Mae Hemphill
Hemphill in the 1980s
Background information
Birth nameJessie Mae Hemphill
Born(1923-10-18)October 18, 1923
near Como and Senatobia, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedJuly 22, 2006(2006-07-22) (aged 82)
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres North Mississippi hill country blues
  • Singer-songwriter
  • musician
  • Vocals
  • guitar

Jessie Mae Hemphill (October 18, 1923 – July 22, 2006) [1] was an American electric guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist specializing in the North Mississippi hill country blues traditions of her family and regional heritage. [2]

Hill country blues is a regional style of country blues. It is characterized by a strong emphasis on rhythm and percussion, steady guitar riffs, few chord changes, unconventional song structures, and heavy emphasis on the "groove", which has been characterized as the "hypnotic boogie".


Life and career

Hemphill was born near Como and Senatobia, Mississippi, [3] in the northern Mississippi hill country, just east of the Mississippi Delta. She began playing the guitar at the age of seven. She also played drums in local fife-and-drum bands, [2] beginning with the band led by her paternal grandfather, Sid Hemphill, in which she played snare drum and bass drum. [3] Aside from sitting in at Memphis bars a few times in the 1950s, most of her playing was done in family and informal settings, such as picnics with fife-and-drum music, until she was recorded in 1979.

Como, Mississippi Town in Mississippi, United States

Como is a town in Panola County, Mississippi, which borders the Mississippi Delta and is in the northern part of the state, known as hill country. The population was 1,310 as of the 2000 census. It is in a relatively isolated rural area, which has struggled with the legacy of slavery, segregation and agricultural decline.

Senatobia, Mississippi City in Mississippi, United States

Senatobia is a city in and the county seat of Tate County, Mississippi, and is the 16th largest municipality in the Memphis Metropolitan Area. The population was 8,165 at the 2010 census.

Mississippi Delta northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers

The Mississippi Delta, also known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi which lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The region has been called "The Most Southern Place on Earth", because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history. It is 200 miles (320 km) long and 87 miles (140 km) across at its widest point, encompassing about 4,415,000 acres (17,870 km2), or, almost 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain. Originally covered in hardwood forest across the bottomlands, it was developed as one of the richest cotton-growing areas in the nation before the American Civil War (1861–1865). The region attracted many speculators who developed land along the riverfronts for cotton plantations; they became wealthy planters dependent on the labor of black slaves, who comprised the vast majority of the population in these counties well before the Civil War, often twice the number of whites.

Her first recordings were field recordings made by the blues researcher George Mitchell in 1967 and the ethnomusicologist David Evans in 1973, but they were not released. She was then known as Jessie Mae Brooks, using the surname from a brief early marriage. In 1978, Evans came to Memphis, Tennessee, to teach at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). The school founded the High Water Recording Company in 1979 to promote interest in the regional music of the South. Evans made the first high-quality field recordings of Hemphill in that year and soon after produced her first sessions for High Water.

George Mitchell is an American record producer and music historian.

David Evans is an American ethnomusicologist and director of the Ethnomusicology/Regional Studies program at the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music in the University of Memphis, where he has worked since 1978.

Memphis, Tennessee City in Tennessee, United States

Memphis is a city located along the Mississippi River in southwestern Shelby County, Tennessee, United States. The 2017 city population was 652,236, making Memphis the largest city on the Mississippi River, the second most populous city in Tennessee, as well as the 26th largest city in the United States. Greater Memphis is the 42nd largest metropolitan area in the United States, with a population of 1,348,260 in 2017. The city is the anchor of West Tennessee and the greater Mid-South region, which includes portions of neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi. Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, the most populous county in Tennessee. As one of the most historic and cultural cities of the southern United States, the city features a wide variety of landscapes and distinct neighborhoods.

Hemphill launched a recording career in the early 1980s. [4] In 1981 her first full-length album, She-Wolf, was licensed from High Water and released by the French label Disques Vogue. In the early 1980s, she performed in a Mississippi drum corps assembled by Evans; it included Hemphill, Abe Young, and Jim Harper (who also played on Tav Falco's Panther Burns's album Behind the Magnolia Curtain). Hemphill performed in another drum group with Young and fife-and-drum band veteran Othar Turner for the television program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood . The French label Black & Blue Records released other recordings by her. Hemphill played concerts across the United States and in other countries, including France, Germany, [5] Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada. In 1987 and 1988 she received the W. C. Handy Award for best traditional female blues artist. [2] In 1987 she made her New York debut, accompanied by Evans and Walter Perkins. [6] Her first American full-length album, Feelin' Good, released in 1990, won a Handy Award for best acoustic album. [2] [7]

Disques Vogue was a jazz record company founded in France by Léon Cabat and Charles Delaunay in 1947, the year after the American Vogue label ceased.

Tav Falcos Panther Burns American rock band

Tav Falco's Panther Burns, sometimes shortened to (The) Panther Burns, is a rock band originally from Memphis, Tennessee, United States, led by Tav Falco. They are best known for having been part of a set of bands emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s who helped nationally popularize the blending of blues, country, and other American traditional music styles with rock music among groups playing in alternative music and punk music venues of the time. The earliest and most renowned of these groups to imbue these styles with expressionist theatricality and primitive spontaneity were The Cramps, largely influenced by rockabilly music. Forming just after them in 1979, Panther Burns drew on obscure country blues music, Antonin Artaud's works like The Theater and Its Double, beat poetry, and Marshall McLuhan's media theories for their early inspiration. Alongside groups like The Cramps and The Gun Club, Panther Burns ranked among the contributing influences and progenitors of the Southern Gothic-tinged roots music revival scene that arose during the last two decades of the 20th century and continued into the early 2000s.

Othar "Otha" Turner was one of the last well-known fife players in the vanishing American fife and drum blues tradition. His music was also part of the African-American genre known as Hill country blues.

In 1993 Hemphill had a stroke, which paralyzed her left side, preventing her from playing guitar; she retired from her blues career. [8] She continued to play by accompanying her band on the tambourine. [9]

In 2004, the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation released Dare You to Do It Again, a double album and DVD of gospel standards, newly recorded by the ailing vocalist, singing and playing tambourine with accompaniment from Steve Gardner, DJ Logic, and descendants of the late musicians Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside, and Otha Turner. They were her first recordings since her stroke in 1993. [2] Also in 2004, Inside Sounds released Get Right Blues, containing material recorded from 1979 through the early 1980s, and Black & Blue released Mississippi Blues Festival, which includes seven live tracks by her from a Paris concert in 1986.

Gospel music is a genre of Christian music. The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. Gospel music usually has dominant vocals with Christian lyrics. Gospel music can be traced to the early 17th century, with roots in the black oral tradition. Hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in a call and response fashion. Most of the churches relied on hand clapping and foot stomping as rhythmic accompaniment. Most of the singing was done a cappella. The first published use of the term "gospel song" probably appeared in 1874. The original gospel songs were written and composed by authors such as George F. Root, Philip Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, William Howard Doane, and Fanny Crosby. Gospel music publishing houses emerged. The advent of radio in the 1920s greatly increased the audience for gospel music. Following World War II, gospel music moved into major auditoriums, and gospel music concerts became quite elaborate.

DJ Logic American turntablist

DJ Logic is an American turntablist active primarily in nu-jazz/acid jazz and with jam bands.

Junior Kimbrough American blues musician

David "Junior" Kimbrough was an American blues musician. His best-known works are "Keep Your Hands off Her" and "All Night Long".

Hemphill died on July 22, 2006, at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis, after complications from an ulcer. [2]


As one of the earliest successful female blues musicians[ citation needed ], Hemphill was an influential and pioneering artist. Her songs have been performed by indie musician Chan Marshall. [10] Marshall performed Hemphill's song "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy" on her album Jukebox without credit, to much controversy. [11]

In 2003, Hemphill's protégé and collaborator, Olga Wilhelmine Munding, established the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation to preserve and archive the African-American music of northern Mississippi and to provide assistance for regional musicians in need who could not survive on meager publishing royalties. [2] [11]

One of Hemphill's songs was featured in the dance Tales from the Creek, by Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Performance Group, in a series of events celebrating black culture in Union Square Park, Manhattan in 1998. [12]



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  1. Cheseborough, Steve (2008). "Senatobia". Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues. University Press of Mississippi. p. 243. ISBN   978-1-60473-328-0 . Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Jessie Mae Hemphill, 71, Blues Musician, Dies" . New York Times . July 25, 2006.
  3. 1 2 Pearson, Barry Lee (2005). Jook Right On: Blues Stories and Blues Storytellers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. p. 197. ISBN   1-57233-431-2.
  4. Snowden, Don (June 2, 1986). "Hypnotic Hemphill". Los Angeles Times (Archives). Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  5. Living Blues. Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi. 1981. p. 48.
  6. Palmer, Robert (August 15, 1987). "Blues: Hemphill and Lester, from Bayou Country". New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved June 20, 2015.
  7. "[Blues music awards, all years]". PastBlues.
  8. "Jessie Mae Hemphill". Mississippi Blues Trail . Mississippi Blues Commission.
  9. Pareles, Jon (November 12, 2001). "Transporting Delta Tunes from the Farm to the City". New York Times.
  10. Chinen, Nate (February 8, 2008). "Put Another Nickel in for Bleary 'Jukebox' Soul" . New York Times.
  11. 1 2 Tennille, Andy (April 9, 2008). "Matador Records Skips Important Credit on Cat Power's Jukebox". SF Weekly .
  12. Dunning, Jennifer (July 24, 1998). "Ethnic Notes from All Over in Outdoor Shows at Two Sites". New York Times.
  13. Smith, Jessie Carney (1996). Notable Black American Women (Book 2). p. 283. Jessie Mae Hemphill has lived and performed in the Delta for most of her life, and she is an important and well-known ... Hemphill plays the diddley bow on her She Wolf album, in the song 'Take Me Home and Put Me in Your Big Brass Bed'.
  14. Unterberger, Richie; Hicks, Samb; Dempsey, Jennifer (1999). Music USA: The Rough Guide. p. 214. O Jessie Mae Hemphill, She-Wolf (HighTone). A 1980 album, on which Hemphill often plays guitar and percussion simultaneously, that gives a good idea of her moody blues, featuring spare guitar figures and tinkling percussion."
  15. Baszak, Mark; Cohen, Edward (2003). Such Sweet Thunder: Views on Black American Music. p. 196. Born in Senatobia, Mississippi, Jessie Mae Hemphill, a singer and guitarist, is a self-taught musician who incorporates ... Hemphill released her 1981 debut album, She-Wolf, on Vogue records in Europe, but it wasn't until 1987 that she ...