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I started a quest to find terrific blues music and incredible musicianship when I was just a little kid. I also have a tremendous appreciation of fine musical instruments and equipment. One of my greatest joys all of my life was sharing my finds with my friends. I'm now publishing my journey. I hope that you come along!

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

You Can Talk About Me - Jessie Mae Hemphill

As I stepped into Jessie Mae Hemphill’s trailer, my eyes fell upon Sweet Pea (her dog) and a revolver. By the end of that first meeting, I couldn’t help thinking that this was the allure of Jessie Mae. She is sweetness incarnate, but you really wouldn’t want to mess with her either. This same duality is present in her music. Listen to her voice and you can hear a lilting quality, bringing to mind a Billie Holiday. But listen to the lyrics, and you sense a woman who’s seen a thing or two of the world. As she pulled a hollow-tip bullet out of her blouse she spoke loudly so the young “punks” hanging out near her trailer could hear. “A bullet like this one here will put a hole in you this big,” she said, making a circle with her good arm. As it turns out, the revolver plays a practical role. Ever since a stroke left Jessie Mae partially paralyzed, she knows a vulnerability that she had clearly never experienced. This same stroke rendered her unable to play guitar, effectively ending a successful career that was on the rise. Jessie Mae Hemphill was surrounded by music from the moment she was born near the Tate and Panola County lines in northern Mississippi. Her great-grandfather was a renowned fiddle player in Choctaw County, Mississippi and her grandfather, Sid Hemphill, was a blind fiddle player and bandleader. The Hemphill’s were multi-instrumentalists with her grandfather also playing panpipes, drums, guitar, piano, banjo, and fife. Her aunt Rosa Lee was also a well-known performer who recorded several albums. Rosa Lee, like her sisters Sidney Lee and Virgie Lee Hemphill (Jessie Mae’s mother) played stringed instruments, as well as drums. As a young girl in the early 40’s, Jessie Mae was heavily influenced by the music at family and community gatherings; both church music and the blues. She began playing guitar at age seven or eight, and later played bass drum and snare in her grandfather’s fife and drum band. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ’70s, Jessie Mae Hemphill played with various bands, never straying far from her roots. She lived in Memphis for 20 years, playing on Beale Street when she wasn’t working various odd jobs. By the time she decided to return home to the country in the mid ‘70s, she had all but left the drums behind and focused mainly on her guitar playing. Hemphill played an electric guitar in open D or open G, preferring open D because of its versatility within the blues structure. As Barbara Flaska writes in her article “The High Water Mark Keeps Rising:” Her playing ignores the standard 12-bar blues progressions and relies instead on the open chord tunings and repeated riffs typical of the folk blues of her native Mississippi. Hemphill’s guitar style is often described as idiosyncratic. Her open tunings are rhythm-powered and enhanced by an occasionally hypnotic drone. Her guitar style is overdriven, a little roughed-up and coarsely textured, but very natural sounding. There’s not too much in the way of turnarounds or doubling back. Her songs are driven by a relentless rhythm, powered by a fierce strum - with a slide up one string and down the next for accent. Hemphill plays way up the neck, with both barred and fingered chords, and bends a string when the mood strikes her. The stomping guitar parts act as a rhythmic echo to the words and percussion. Due to the remoteness of her native North Mississippi region, much of this music had yet to reach a mainstream audience. Although folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded several of the Hemphill family members in the ‘50s, in addition to “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, most of the musicians of this region would remain unnoticed for years to come. Jessie Mae’s solo recording career began in the early ‘80s with several 45s on the High Water label. In 1981 she released her first album, She-Wolf, on the French label Vogue. Unfortunately the album was only released in Europe and the Vogue label did not have sufficient resources for wide-scale promotion. As a result, the album gained critical acclaim among blues enthusiasts, but failed to reach a broader audience. Nevertheless, Hemphill toured Europe on several occasions playing at large halls and festivals. In 1986 she toured France and recorded tracks for the Mississippi Blues Festival 1986 album on the French Black and Blue label, which achieved some recognition in the US. Hemphill won the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Female Blues Artist in both 1987 and 1988, even though she had yet to release a full-length album in the states. In 1991 she released her second album, and the first in the US, entitled Feelin’ Good on the High Water label. The album won the Handy Award for Best Acoustic Album that year. The title track is the signature piece Hemphill used to open and close her sets. As Barbara Flaska puts it; Feelin’ Good provides a good sense of what must have been the feel of Hemphill’s entertaining at the rough and tumble gatherings, house parties, or picnics of the region. Her songwriting often wedded the stomp and march rhythms of the fife and drum bands to her amplified guitar work. When she played outdoors, people are reported to have climbed dancing into trees while others still on the ground turned handstands and danced on their hands. On the first six tracks, Hemphill’s sparse accompaniment includes drummer R. L. Boyce, who carried the tattoo snare rhythms he learned from his work with the fife and drum bands of the area straight into the studio, unchanged. Coming off the success of Feelin’ Good, her career looked bright for the ‘90s. She was well-known in Europe and the US, was touring extensively, had gotten good reviews, and her albums were selling rather well. But in 1993 she suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side, leaving her unable to play guitar. Jessie Mae Hemphill retired from touring and returned to Senatobia, Mississippi where she lives with her dog Sweet Pea. She still sings and plays the tambourine in church. "I am singing for the Lord now," she says. “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson If you support live Blues acts, up and coming Blues talents and want to learn more about Blues news and Fathers of the Blues, Like ---Bman’s Blues Report--- Facebook Page! I’m looking for great talent and trying to grow the audience for your favorites band! ”LIKE”

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