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Jessie Mae Hemphill

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.”

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Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson


Hightone Records




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