The late Jessie Mae Hemphill is a legend of hill country blues guitar. Born in 1923, she grew up in a lineage of familial fife-and-drums bands from northern Mississippi. She rose to popularity in the mid 1980s and had a fruitful career during which she performed around the globe, traveling mostly on her own.
Hemphill played in open tunings and, having started as a drummer, had a percussive guitar style that included slapping and banging the instrument. She would also tie a tambourine around her calf, which, together with her strumming-and-drumming guitar work, gave her performance the sound of a one-woman-band.
In 1993, a stroke left Hemphill unable to play with both hands, but as this 2005 interview reveals, her independence and faith allowed her to persevere and accept her circumstances with grace. Hemphill died in 2006.
Did your mother play guitar?
Yeah, all of ’em played guitar in my family. My daddy’s side played piano and organ and such, but my mama and them played piano and organ, guitar and any kind of string music. It came from my mama’s side. All of them was musicians. I had a great childhood. I used to go from one house to the other and take the guitar and beat on the drums, and I wasn’t but two or three years old.
So you played drums first and then guitar?
I played all of it. I played guitar and drums. My aunty, she was a school teacher and she played piano, and I’d go stay with her and she’d get me to school. After high school, I went to Memphis and stayed with my daddy, and I got a job up there.
I stayed in Memphis 30 years. Those were my first concerts. I played guitar all the time in Memphis. I played on tour. My second tour was Canada. I came over to Canada and played to 35,000 people. I had never got in front of that many people.
Did you play by yourself, mainly?
Yeah, ’cause there wasn’t nothing else to do, I reckon. I went from Memphis to New York and from New York overseas all the time. I just got going over there by myself and doing good. The folks would meet you at the airport. Wasn’t nothing to do but go on in the car and go to the motel.
I look at it now and think, Girl, how crazy you was and how dangerous it was! I didn’t know none of them folks. I was going over there by myself, crossing all that water by myself. I had the nerve to do anything back then. If my mama had been living, I wouldn’t have got to go overseas ’cause she would never allow me to get on that plane in the first place.
Do you ever miss going on the road?
No, and I don’t be lonesome neither about not making no music now. It don’t bother me at all. I’m happy if I don’t make it, ’cause a wise person is supposed to change, and a fool ain’t gonna never change. I just ain’t worried about what God done. He know what he doing.
Do you miss your guitar?
I can play. I pick with my right hand and play it good. I play it like when I first started playing. I can do that, but I can’t hold it with my left hand. So I have a strap I put on my left hand to hold it up. I can play it, but I don’t worry about that, because I don’t care about playing. I was playing it since I was about seven or eight years old. There’s a time for everything. Everything got an end to it.
Browse Jessie Mae Hemphill music here (opens in new tab).
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