Jessie Mae Hemphill

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Jessie Mae Hemphill
Hemphill, 1980s
Background information
Birth name Jessie Mae Hemphill
Born (1923-10-18)October 18, 1923
near to Como and Senatobia, Mississippi, United States
Died July 22, 2006(2006-07-22) (aged 82)
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, musician
Instruments 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]

Life and career[edit]

Jessie Mae Hemphill was born near Como and Senatobia, Mississippi,[3] in northern Mississippi hill country just east of the Mississippi Delta. She began playing the guitar at the age of seven and also played drums in various local Mississippi fife and drum bands.[2] She began playing snare drum and bass drum in the fife-and-drum band led by her paternal grandfather, Sid Hemphill.[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 recorded in 1979.

The first field recordings of her work were made by blues researcher George Mitchell in 1967 and ethnomusicologist David Evans in 1973, but the recordings were not released. She was then known as Jessie Mae Brooks, using the surname from a brief early marriage. In 1978, Dr. Evans came to Memphis to teach at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis). The school founded the High Water label 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 the High Water label.

Hemphill launched a recording career in the early 1980s, a period which was her heyday.[4] In 1981 her first full-length album, She-Wolf, was licensed from High Water and released on France's Vogue Records. In the early 1980s, she performed in a Mississippi drum corps put together by Evans; it included Hemphill, Abe Young, and Jim Harper (who also played on Tav Falco's Panther Burns' Behind the Magnolia Curtain album). Hemphill performed in another drum group with Young and fife-and-drum band veteran Othar Turner in a televised appearance on the TV show, 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 had her New York debut, accompanied by Evans and Walter Perkins.[6]

In 1990, her first American full-length album, Feelin' Good, was released, which won a Handy Award for best acoustic album.[2][7] In 1993 Hemphill suffered a stroke that 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 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. The release, her first recordings since the 1993 stroke, also included a DVD.[2] Also in 2004, Inside Sounds released Get Right Blues, containing material recorded from 1979 through the early 1980s; Black & Blue released Mississippi Blues Festival, which included seven live tracks by her from a Paris concert in 1986.

On July 22, 2006, Jessie Mae Hemphill died at The Regional Medical Center in Memphis, after experiencing complications from an ulcer.[2]


As one of the earliest successful female blues musicians, Hemphill has been an influential and pioneering artist. Her songs have been performed by indie musician Chan Marshall.[10] Marshall used 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, founded 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 also 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 in 1998.[12]


  • She-Wolf (1981; reissued 1998)[13][14][15]
  • Swamp Surfing in Memphis (various artists, 1986, rereleased 1998)
  • Mississippi Blues Festival (various artists, 1986; reissued 2004)
  • Giants of Country Blues Guitar (1967–1981) (various artists, 1988)
  • Feelin' Good (1990; reissued 1997 with extra tracks)
  • The Fabulous Low-Price HMG Blues Sampler (various artists, 1997)
  • Deep South Blues (various artists, 1999)
  • Heritage of the Blues: Shake It Baby (2003)
  • Dare You to Do It Again (2004)
  • Get Right Blues (2004)
  • Mississippi Blues Festival (also includes tracks by Hezekiah & the House Rockers, 2004)
  • On Air: Live Music From The WEVL Archives (various artists, 1996)
  • Foot Hill Stomp (2002) Richard Johnston with Jessie Mae Hemphill



  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 25 May 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Jessie Mae Hemphill, 71, Blues Musician, Dies". The New York Times. July 25, 2006. (subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ a b Pearson, Barry Lee (2005). Jook Right On: Blues stories and blues storytellers (1st ed.). Knoxville, Tennessee, United States: 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, The University of Mississippi. 1981. p. 48. 
  6. ^ Palmer, Robert (1987-08-15). "Blues: Hemphill and Lester, From Bayou Country". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-06-20. 
  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". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ Chinen, Nate (February 8, 2008). "Put Another Nickel in for Bleary ‘Jukebox’ Soul". The New York Times. (subscription required (help)). 
  11. ^ a b Tennille, Andy (9 April 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". The 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 ... 


  • LaBalle, Candace (2002). "Jessie Mae Hemphill: Blues Musician, Singer". Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community, ed. Ashyia Henderson. Detroit: Thomson/Gale. Vol. 33, pp. 81–84. via
  • Evans, Dr. David (1993). "Jessie Mae Hemphill." Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing. Vol. 1, pp. 555–556.

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