Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Jessie Mae Hemphill Got Her Blues Right

It had been some time since I listened to Jessie Mae Hemphill. When I went out for a few errands the other day, I saw her CD, “Get Right Blues” (Inside Memphis) and took it to play in my car CD player, and it brought back some good memories of her and her music.

Jessie Mae Hemphill grew up in a musical family of great renown in the Hill Country of Northern Mississippi. Her grandfather was a famed fiddle player as well as led a fife and drums band that Alan Lomax recorded during his pioneering field trips to Mississippi for the Library of Congress in the 1940s. Her auntie, Rosa Lee, was later recorded by Lomax in the 1950s. Most of the members of her family were multi-instrumentalists and the anchor for their music was anchored by the fife and drum bands that Jessie Mae played in as well as the blues. One can hear her music shaped around the percussive rhythms fostered by the the fife and drum bands that played (and still play) a significant role in the lives of the Hill Country folk. This was reflected in her guitar playing as well as the bells she wore on her ankles or a foot tambourine. She also played a bass and/or snare drum, using a foot pedal. This writer hears the influence of Mississippi Fred McDowell in her playing and her slide playing, although one would not claim she was McDowell’s equal. Her rough edged vocals was the source of why her music was so appealing as her simple, driving accompaniments.

She was first recorded by George Mitchell and later by David Evans who issued 45s by her on the High Water label and then an LP on High Water. She acquired the nickname She-Wolf that suggested her fiery and flamboyant personality and she recorded an album for the French Vogue label that was critically received but had little exposure in the United States. In 1991, High Water issued Feelin’ Good, that was the 1991 WC Handy Award For Best Acoustic Blues Album. She was one of a number of blues performers who participated in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that year that had plenty of focus on the blues. Her performances displayed the personality that actually could be heard on her recordings. Her performances often were dynamic and compelling. Shortly thereafter, in 1993, she suffered a stroke that shortened her musical career and she died a few years back.

In the notes for Get Right Blues, David Evans states these are previously unissued performances. Some of them, like the driving Steamline Train, recalls similar performances on Feelin’ Good. With Evans on second guitar and Hemphill also playing bass and snare drums, she builds up an irresistible pulse here as she adds a simple guitar riff in her response to her vocal line. Shake Your Booty (Shake It Baby), has a simple one-chord accompaniment . Go Back To Your Used To Be is a slow solo blues and has her playing foot tambourine to support a haunting vocal. On Take It With You Baby, she plays a droning one-chord accompaniment on a Diddley Bow. She performed a nice straight rendition of Baby Please Don’t Go, while on Lord, Help the Poor & Needy, she heart-fully delivers the song’s message accompanied solely by her tambourine. Part of her appeal might be the often simple lyrics and the sincerity evident in her vocals, set against the sometimes simple, yet rhythmic backing. Compton Jones joins her on the gospel number, He’s a Mighty Good Leader with such simple rhythmic backing. Livelier is All Night Boogie (Jessie’s Boogie), with a quicker tempo reminiscent of the opening track. Loving in the Moonlight in contrast has more of a slow-drag backing. Another highlight is Honey Bee, an adaptation of a Memphis Minnie recording with a wonderful vocal even if her accompaniment is pretty basic.

Listening to this album brings back memories of those magical Folklife Festival performances and my time talking with her. I know at times, the festival staff felt she lived up to her “She-Wolf” nickname, but I found her fascinating as she talked about her background, her aunties, and music. If one can locate Feelin’ Good, I would recommend that first (and amazon shows it in print as I write this), but this is a very enjoyable recording in its own right and is available as both a CD and downloads. BTW, there is a terrific biography of her at http://www.jmhemphill.org/.

I likely received a review copy of this several years ago.

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