A Delta Blues Composer/Performer Of The 1980s
By Andre J.M. Prevos
Pennsylvania State University
Photos copyright Dan Zarnstorff

Jessie Mae Hemphill represents both the well-established Delta musical tradition as well as a clear evolution within the tradition. The subtitle of this paper has been added owing to the fact that Jessie Mae Hemphill's recording career developed essentially in the 1980s and also because she has stopped her musical productions since the early 1990s.

Jessie Mae Hemphill's Biography

Jessie Mae Hemphill was born in the late 1930s or in 1940, depending on the sources consulted. The MusicHound Guide to the Blues mentions that she was born in 1940 near Como, Mississippi (Rucker160) while the authors of the All Music Guide to the Blues indicate that she was born in 1934 in Senatobia, Mississippi (Erlewine, & al. 108). Other researchers admit their lack of knowledge and usually follow one of the above two dates with a question mark (Herzhaft 157). From the several published interviews consulted during the writing of this essay (Ulloa, Polesel 30-32; Nilsson 13-14), these years fall well within what Jessie Mae Hemphill claims. She says that she was "young then" ,in the 1950s, and that she could have made records in the 1950s but she "didn't have a chance" (Hemphill 17, 21).

Jessie Mae Hemphill was born in a well-known musical family of the Delta; her great-grandfather (Dock Hemphill) was a renowned fiddle player in Choctaw County, Mississippi. Her grandfather (Sid Hemphill) was also a fiddle player and bandleader who recorded for Alan Lomax and George Mitchell (Lomax 314-26, 333-40).1 Members of the older generation of Hemphills, in a way anticipating Jessie Mae's own musical career, were multi-instrumentalists.

In addition to the fiddle, her grandfather played the panpipes, drums, guitar, piano, Jew's harp, banjo and the fife (Evans [1] 14). Her own father (James Graham) played the piano, the organ, as well as the guitar; he was a well-known blues pianist in Memphis. Just like her two sisters (Rosa Lee and Sidney Lee), her mother ,Virgie Lee Hemphill, played stringed instruments as well as the bass and snare drum, sometimes accompanying their father at picnics, dances and other local performances (Evans [2]).

According to Jessie Mae Hemphill's remembrances, Alan Lomax recorded her grandfather in the 1940s at a picnic in Sledge, Mississippi. In the 1950s, several members of the Hemphill family recorded music and songs for John Lomax. Her grandfather recorded songs in the 1950s; he was blind and she served as his guide to help him find his way in the neighborhood (Hemphill 18). Her aunt and her own children also recorded songs for Lomax in the 1950s.

Jessie Mae Hemphill started her musical career when she was a young girl by playing the bass and snare drum in a fife-and-drum band and, later, when she was about seven or eight years old, she started playing the guitar. She learned music from two sources that have long been recognized by researchers. The first source was the musical family in which she was born and the larger societal surroundings in which she participated. She learned tunes from her immediate family and practiced with these same musicians. Her aunt Rosa Lee played the guitar regularly and showed her how to play the tunes. Jessie Mae, just like her aunt, played both church tunes and blues and then "got the sound in her head." Her first guitar was a "little bitty old acoustic guitar with plastic strings on it." Later, her aunt Sidney Lee gave her an old guitar ,a Nash, that she had bought for her own daughter, but the daughter did not learn to play the guitar and her aunt gave it to Jessie Mae (Hemphill 19). The second source of musical inspiration was the recordings that were owned by her family. She indicated that her mother had records "from the real Sonny Boy Williamson" [John Lee Williamson] who recorded Little School Girl in the 1940s (Hemphill 17). In the 1970s and 1980s, Jessie Mae Hemphill focused primarily on playing the guitar, sometimes the tambourine or the bells and, less often, the diddley bow. She played the guitar tuned in open D and or open G ("Spanish tuning"). During her musical career, she played most often in open D tuning because, as she indicated, "you can play anything you want to play in the blues and don't change the tune" (Hemphill 19).

Jessie Mae Hemphill's performing career began in earnest in the 1950s. She had performed for neighbors, at picnics or local dances, and for acquaintances at a very early age. She told an interviewer that she began dancing when she was two years old and that, later, her performances brought her money. She indicated that she had never suffered from stage fright and that she had followed her grandfather's advice. He told her that she had "to make the spectators give her some money" (Hemphill 18). She even remembers a funny episode about one occasion when she was a young girl. She was told to perform on a stage; she was tap dancing and had to invent figures she had never made before because she had to pull up her panties which kept sliding down her waist (Hemphill 18)! She also mentioned the fact that she was a very good bass and snare drum player and that nobody could beat her playing the drum because she had "so many different licks to put in drums." Her ability to vary her drumming patterns when she played the drum allowed her to maintain a superiority against all others drummers, women or men. Her musical career also began in the 1950s when she started performing at local places in the Delta, whether in Mississippi or in Arkansas. However, her guitar playing on stage did not start in earnest until the late 1970s because during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, she performed with bands (Hemphill 21).

During most of the 1950s, the 1960s and the early 1970s, Jessie Mae Hemphill's career was limited to the local and regional levels. She worked in several small places in the Delta as well as in Memphis where she lived for about twenty years. In Memphis, she played with a blues band in the 1950s and, when she was not playing, she worked for cleaners, cafeterias, or grocery stores; most of the time she worked at the cash registers. During these years she performed in bars and clubs in and around Memphis. At times, she performed in her own cafes or clubs in Memphis. In the mid-1970s, she decided to return to the Delta. She left Memphis because of the increase in urban violence. She readily admitted that living in the countryside was better because of the lesser amount of violence. She also made it very clear that her life in her new rural environment was not her preferred lifestyle because of the absence of sociability on the part of many people, including some of her neighbors (Hemphill 20).

When Jessie Mae Hemphill was growing up, she came in contact with a large number of local and national musicians, whether in the Delta or in Memphis. She has claimed that she discovered Fred McDowell, from Como, Mississippi, as well as Johnny Woods, the harmonica player who sometimes accompanied him.2 In the 1960s, she mentioned McDowell to George Mitchell but McDowell had already started performing for the blues revival crowds by the time Mitchell reached him (Hemphill 20). Since she was a member of a renowned musical family she met many of the local musicians when they visited her grandfather, this was the case with Sonny Boy Williamson [Rice Miller]. When she was living in Memphis, she became friends with some of the best-known blues and rhythm-and-blues artists of the times: B.B. King, Albert King, Junior Parker, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. She remembered that one time, she and two other women -one piano player and one drummer- decided to play while B.B. King and his band were taking a break. They got on the stage, started playing, and the people in the club started dancing. The members of B.B. King's band did not dare return inside the club right away; they thought that the owner had hired another band because B.B. King and his musicians had taken a break which had lasted too long (Hemphill 21).

Jessie Mae Hemphill returned to live near Como, close to the place where she was born in Panola County, Mississippi, in the mid-1970s. Once back close to home, she realized that she was the only member of her family who was left actively playing music. She decided to launch her own musical career in the late 1970s in order to continue the tradition started by her great-grandfather and continued by her grandfather and her aunts. She was a good musician, had a strong musical base and had spent a long time on the stage. She knew the Delta blues very well and had known some of its artists (in addition to McDowell and Woods, she was close to R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough). She also knew the more modern electric-blues music of artists whether from Chicago or Memphis. When she chose her personal technical and musical style she tried to straddle the stylistic fence between the traditional Delta blues played acoustically in the manner or Robert Johnson or Charley Patton and the electric blues played by Chicago artists (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc.) or by the modern so-called Memphis blues musicians (B.B. King, etc.). A significant influence was that of her aunt Rosa Lee who had taught her the guitar and whose singing technique and style she is said to have followed.

The instruments that Jessie Mae Hemphill played illustrated this stylistic and musical duality, the style of music she played, and the songs she composed and interpreted also underline this stylistic situation. Her instrument of choice on stage was the electric guitar that she played in what could be seen as a traditional adaptation of a modern instrument: she did not play extended solos or fast musical phrases. Instead, she used the guitar as a rhythm instrument by strumming or elaborating patterns to accompany her singing. It could be said that she used the guitar in a way similar to the drum found in the traditional fife-and-drum bands of the Delta,such as the bands that her great-grandfather and grandfather directed. She has also recorded tunes where she uses a tambourine attached to her foot or bells attached to her leg. In addition, she is known to have recorded at least one tune

where she accompanies herself on the diddley bow (a horizontal piece of broom wire attached on the outside wall of a house, with two bottles serving as bridges that is played by striking the wire with a finger while sliding a small bottle or a piece of metal pipe on the length of the wire, in a manner similar to what is produced when a musician plays bottleneck guitar).3

Jessie Mae Hemphill's first album She Wolf was first published in France in 1981 owing to the help of Gerard Herzhaft, a French blues researcher who had visited the Delta in the late 1970s and had had the chance to meet Jessie Mae Hemphill and hear her perform near Como. This album was well received in France4 as well as in many European countries. Unfortunately, the promotion by Vogue, the French label that issued the record, was not very strong and the overall impact of the record was limited outside the world of blues collectors. Moreover, Jessie Mae Hemphill toured Europe several times in the 1980s, performing at festivals or in recital halls. She toured France in 1986 and recorded an album for the French Black & Blue label. I had the pleasure to hear her play at a blues festival in France in the summer of 1987. Her performance was very interesting and she had an easy and unpretentious relation with the audience whose members were deeply impressed by the songs she interpreted.

As indicated earlier, the 1980s were the decade during which Jessie Mae Hemphill received widespread acclaim in the United States as well as in Europe. In addition, she was honored by the Handy Awards two years in a row, in 1987 and 1988, when she received the Handy Award for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist (Evans [2]). In 1991, her second album Feelin' Good received the Handy Award for best blues album (Evans [2]). Jessie Mae Hemphill's musical future for the 1990s appeared very promising indeed. She was well known in Europe and in the United States; she toured extensively, her recordings were favorably evaluated by reviewers and sold rather well. It could be said that she had fulfilled her own project: she had established her name in the world of blues in the United States as well as in Europe. Unfortunately, at the end of 1993, Jessie Mae Hemphill suffered a stroke; the lingering paralysis has limited her mobility and prevented her from playing the guitar. This unforeseen event brought an end to Jessie Mae Hemphill's brief but impressive national and international musical career.

Today, Jessie Mae Hemphill still lives near Como but she is alone most of the time; she is visited regularly by a nurse and, sometimes by individuals who come to see how she is doing. She remembers fondly her trips to Europe (England, Italy, Germany, France) and the friendship of other blues musicians and artists such as B.B. King or Junior Parker (Nicholson & Young 110-111). She has retained some of her specific outlook on life as well as her fondness for Stetson cowboy hats that she used to wear during the 1980s. As for the music that she made famous, the music of her family as well as her own music, she has said that she has forgotten all her old blues songs and, at times, she has indicated that she wished she had kept closer to church singing. She has indicated repeatedly that, in the past, many of her songs came to her at odd times and that they came to her just like "somebody writing them on the wall". Today, however, she claims that church songs come to her the same way, "just like somebody writing it down" (Nicholson & Young 110).


In her interviews, during her stage performances, as well as in the notes to her albums, Jessie Mae Hemphill often mentioned the songs she had recorded, how they had come to her or why she had composed them. She also indicated that she usually started by thinking about the words and then, when she had "all the verses up in the song," she started tuning her guitar to see whether she could play the song. She then elaborated a chord sequence that could be the foundation for the music that would accompany the verses she had in her mind. The following examples come from these sources.

The song "Take Me Home with You Baby" is the song where Jessie Mae Hemphill plays the diddley bow; she mentioned that she "just thought up a little happy song: Take me home with you baby / Put me in your big brass bed." The song was recorded in Como in 1979 and shows clear ties to the traditional blues repertoires. This song is on Jessie Mae Hemphill's first album She-Wolf. She indicated that she composed the song "She-Wolf" because she was inspired by Howlin' Wolf whom she had heard perform many times. He was dead by the time she thought about the song and, since she was trying to perform in a style reminiscent of Wolf's, she decided to call the song "She Wolf."

The explanations that are given for the song "Loving in the Moonlight" indicate that, in some cases at least, the technique used to put together a song is a rather complicated pattern. She mentions that she had been to a dance and was on her way back home. She was in the back of the car, looking at the moon and just said "Well, I'm gonna make me up a song about the moon." She started composing the verses right there in the back of the car and by the next day had thought of a complete set of words and musical chords to accompany the verses she had composed. She then memorized the music and the lyrics and the song became part of her repertoire.

Many of the songs composed by Jessie Mae Hemphill, just like the ones composed by so-called traditional blues artists involve personal experiences or reactions to events that marked the life of the artist. This situation is also found in this album. "Standing in My Doorway Crying" is characterized as a song composed while she was "kind of down and out on that one;" she thought of some verses and composed the song about the problems she had to face. But she did not focus exclusively on herself, she also indicated that she took into consideration "problems that maybe somebody else had" during the composition of the song. The song "Jump, Baby, Jump" is happy and reflects great personal happiness on the part of its author. Jessie Mae Hemphill mentioned that she had received a letter from overseas indicating that she was going there soon; she became very happy and "just made the song." A related song is "Overseas Blues" in which she mentions all the countries and the places where she performed during her 1980 European tour. However, she makes it clear that the song was written before she left for Europe; she was thinking about the forthcoming trip and "just put me all of the places for a verse in the song." Some of the songs composed by Jessie Mae Hemphill are clearly in the realm of tragicomedy; such is the case with "Boogie ŒSide the Road" whish is characterized as follows: "We had a flat tire on the side of the road, and I took the guitar and started to playing. And everybody was trying to dance instead of changing the flat tire."

Other songs are more clearly in the blues realm because of the overall content. Such is the case with "Married Man Blues" which underlines the feminine approach to a problem encountered quite commonly in blues lyrics: the impossibility to be with the person with whom you are in love when you desire to be with that person. The song "Hard Times" is "about President Carter" but the name of the American president does not appear prominently in the lyrics. Instead, the overall mention of hard times for everyone in the country, including Jessie Mae Hemphill, underlines that the situation was quite overwhelming for people of all social horizons and status.

A group of songs is tied to the familial tradition that Jessie Mae Hemphill has often mentioned. The song "Crawdad Hole" was a song that her grandfather used to sing to her when she was "a little girl." It came back to her when she was thinking about the songs that her grandfather used to sing. "My Lord Do Just What He Say" is also a song that comes from her grandfather; it was his favorite song on the violin. She remembered that she used to sing and play the guitar with her grandfather when he was playing this particular song. "Honey Bee" is a Memphis Minnie song that her aunt Sidney Lee played and that she learned from her. The song "Bullying Well" is one that came from her aunt Rosa Lee and this was the first song she learned on the guitar when she started to play seriously. It could be said that "Jessie's Boogie" is Jessie Mae Hemphill's own contribution to the family musical heritage; she indicated that she wanted to "make her a boogie" and that she "tried hard to make it good so everybody would like it." It appears that she did indeed succeed.

Jessie Mae Hemphill's second album was issued in 1990 and received the W.C. Handy Award for best traditional blues album in 1991. At the time, it appeared that she had reached a level of recognition that many artists would have appreciated. But, instead of being the early album in a long series of successful albums it became the last album of an artist whose musical heritage was recognized and whose artistic achievements were of great significance. It has already been indicated that, late in 1993, Jessie Mae Hemphill suffered a stroke that put an end to her musical and artistic career. The style of most of the songs of this album is similar to the one encountered on the She-Wolf album presented above.

Jessie Mae Hemphill mixed happy and sad songs such as "Feeling Good" which served as her theme song in the second half of the 1980s or "Tell Me You Love Me" which she described as a "good feeling song." It is played at a fast pace because she "was feeling like wanting to jump some." "Brokenhearted Blues" is more in the blues vein and, as the title suggests deals with matters of the heart and is both for Jessie Mae as well as for all "the other brokenhearted people."

Several songs are related to her family, either because they came from records that she heard when she was young or because they were part of her grandfather's repertoire. "Streamline Train" is based on her grandfather's "Carrier Line" train song. "Baby Please Don't Go" was a record by Big Joe Williams that was in the collection of her family; it is one of the earliest songs she learned to play after her grandfather tuned the guitar for her and she started playing and singing. Later, her grandfather accompanied her on the fiddle and, at times, her aunt or her mother would play the song on the guitar. "My Daddy's Blues" is a song about the importance of music in her family and was composed as a memento mori to the members of her family whose music she tried to continue and promote "Shake It Baby" is a song that she associates with a specific event in a club. She was playing at a dance one time and she broke two strings on her guitar; she had only four stings left on the guitar but the people kept wanting to dance and she started to play "Shake It, Baby" and when she stopped, the dancers who were crowding the dance floor told her to continue playing it; she played the song several times in a row before the dancers allowed her to stop and replace the broken strings on her guitar. "Eagle Bird" Is also related to a personal situation; she was ready to leave for Europe in 1980 when she saw her lamps with the eagle bird on them and used the image of the eagle bird "going deep down playing it with all soul." "Cowgirl Blues" reflects her love for cowboy hats as well as cowboy boots and cowboy clothes. She wrote the song with the hope of being able to buy a horse one day and then become a real cowgirl. As for the song "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy" it is a gospel song that, as the title makes clear, asks for God's help in the attempt to overcome the world's wickedness.


It has been seen that Jessie Mae Hemphill's artistic career was essentially centered on the 1980s. She started her own musical career in order to continue the family tradition that had been illustrated by her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, as well as uncles and aunts.

Jessie Mae Hemphill's musical style was solidly grounded both in the Delta and its diverse musical styles as well as in her own personal and artistic roots. The songs which were part of her repertoire included songs which illustrated the solid ties she felt with the fife and drum tradition of her great-grandfather and grandfather as well as others that were more directly related to her own personal feelings about specific events or more general feelings of happiness or sadness. Family tradition, a rich musical environment, sudden inspiration, thoughts about herself and others are the ingredients that shaped the songs and the music of Jessie Mae Hemphill (Evans [2]). The unfortunate element is that illness and its consequences forced her to put an end to her promising musical and artistic career.


1 Four recordings by Sid Hemphill's band are found on the album Travelling Through the Jungle. Testament TCD 5017. 2 The French album (in the author's collection) Eight Years Ramblin'. Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods. Barclay 920415 (1972), features the two artists playing together. 3 The tune "Take Me Home With You Baby" on the album She Wolf (Hemphill [1]), features Jessie Mae Hemphill playing the diddley bow; this tune was recorded in 1979 near Como, Mississippi. 4 The record was reviewed in the French blues magazine Soul Bag No. 85 (Octobre-Novembre 1981).


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