Jessie Mae Hemphill played the primitive Blues of the hill country of North Mississippi, east of the Delta. Typical of the district, her music has the evocative one-chord boogie beat that is so insistent it seems to penetrate the listener like a virus, resulting in foot-tapping, body swaying and eventually full-on juke dancing. Juke-joints are precisely where this music comes from and Jessie’s near-neighbours RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough would recognise and approve every note. Like those men, Jessie did not have a long recording career or a bag-full of hits, but her contribution to the genre was of a very high quality.
Born into a musical family near Como MS in 1935, Jessie would have grown up listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell
, who would play for tips outside the candy store in town, as well as playing music with her family. Her grandfather Sid Hemphill was recorded by Alan Lomax
on one of his field trips in the 40s, and as a youth Jessie played snare and bass drum with him as he kept the ‘fife and drum’ tradition alive in one of the few areas where it survives. When her solo career took off, Jessie still found time to play in drum and fife bands at home, appearing on TV with the veteran fifer Otha Turner
. In her 30s, she took up guitar and began playing with various bar bands around Mississippi. The University of Memphis
was interested in preserving local music forms and established the High Water label to release the products of their field recordings, opening a window on the music of the hill country which has more in common with hypnotic Swamp Blues than the dark tones of the Delta
or the up-tempo Piedmont
style. Dr. Dave Evans of UM recorded many sessions with Jessie, and they were released in 1981 as the ‘She Wolf’ album on the French Black and Blue label.
‘Shame on You!’ says Jessie, and you know she means it!
Jessie Mae Hemphill Discography
This excellent document of Mississippi hill-country Blues, expanded to 15 tracks, was the record that brought Jessie may to worldwide attention.
Jessie’s hypnotic boogies attracted a lot of attention, and she toured The States, Canada and many European countries, making several recordings along the way, picking up Handy Blues Awards for best female artist in 1987 and ’88. In 1990, Jessie recorded her ‘Feelin’ Good’ album for High Water Records, which also won a ‘Handy’, and her late-blooming career looked bright. Sadly, she suffered a stroke in 1993 which paralysed her left side and prevented her from playing guitar, forcing her retirement. She began performing again with her band, playing tambourine and in fine voice, and she recorded a double album of Gospel classics in 2004. Jessie’s health problems continued, and she passed away in Memphis in 2006.