Saturday, February 26, 2011

Any Woman’s Blues #4 – Jessie Mae Hemphill

Hey, it’s Saturday, which means it’s time for Any Woman’s Blues, & I’m surely excited to present today’s performer, Jessie Mae Hemphill—I love her style & I hope you will too. 

No one knows for sure what year Jessie Mae Hemphill was born—estimates range from 1934 to 1940—but she came from Senatobia, Mississippi (or environs) in the northern part of the state, east of the Delta region.  We do know that music ran in the Hemphill family: her grandfather Sid Hemphill was a bandleader who was recorded by both Alan Lomax & George Mitchell, & both her mother & father, as well as her two sisters, all were local musical performers.  Jessie Mae Hemphill began playing music at a young age as she took up both the bass & the snare drum in local fife & drum bands; a little later at seven or eight she began playing the guitar.  She made her mark as a professional musician much later with the guitar, but percussion seems always to have been close to her soul too:
throughout her career she regularly played a tambourine with her foot while playing guitar & singing!

Hemphill began playing in professional settings from some time in the 1950s on—after a stint playing picnics & other social functions around her community, she moved to Memphis, where she played until the 1970s.  At that point, she decided to return to Mississippi & to the country—the urban landscape had become too violent, she said.

But Jessie Mae Hemphill continued to play &, with the encouragement & support of Memphis musicologist David Evans, launched a serious solo career in the 1980s—this saw her touring Europe & also saw the release of her first album, She-Wolf on Vogue Records (a French label—since re-released on High Water Music) in 1981.   She continued touring during the 1980s & was featured on several blues compilation albums.  She also released a second album, Feelin’ Good in 1987 (online sources actually differ on the release date—I went with All-Music Guide’s date); in addition, Hemphill won the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist in both 1987 and 1988.

Now in her 50s, Hemphill seemed to be a rising star on the blues scene; sadly, life is often unfair.  In 1994 she suffered a stroke, & as a result, she was partially paralyzed on the left side of her body.  She was no longer able to play the guitar as her left arm was involved in the paralysis, but tho her professional career ended, she did continue singing, particularly in church.  Ms Hemphill lived until 2006, spending the last part of her life in Senatobia, Mississippi.

Jessie Mae Hemphill’s style is a fascinating mix of very old, modal blues with the modern sound of an electric guitar—mostly played in open D (a woman after my own heart).  Her music reminds me of RL Burnside—a real favorite of mine these days—& the two were friends—in fact Hemphill was friends with a number of major blues & R&B performers, from Mississippi Fred McDowell & Howlin’ Wolf to BB King & Junior Parker.  As far as her music’s similarity to Burnside’s goes, it isn’t derivative: the style that Hemphill, Burnside & others perfected is closely associated with the Mississippi hill country, & both Hemphill's & Burnside's music also have some of the feel of the neighboring Delta region. 

Jessie Mae Hemphill was truly a great blues artist.  I hope you enjoy the videos!

Photo at the top of the post is by Lisa McGaughran [Wiki Commons user LisaMcG] "depicting Jessie Mae Hemphill onstage talking to the audience between songs at a Beale Street venue (either a restaurant or The Center for Southern Folklore itself, which at one time was supposedly located on Beale) during a music festival that was held throughout the Beale Street area indoor and outdoor venues that year."

The photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license


  1. Interesting. She's not a performer I'd heard of before. Thanks!

  2. Hi Roy: Well, glad to be able to introduce you to her--great stuff!

  3. Only electricity separates her from the very roots of the blues. A touch of the John Lee Hookers about the second song. As you say, great stuff.

  4. Hi Dick: Yes, indeed. I think that whole group from that area--Hemphill, Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford--have all been compared w/early John Lee Hooker.


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