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Jessie Mae Hemphill (October 18, 1923 – July 22, 2006) was a pioneering electric guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist specializing in the primal, northern Mississippi country blues traditions of her family and regional heritage. She was born near Como and Senatobia, Mississippi, in northern Mississippi 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.
The first field recordings of her work were made by blues researcher George Mitchell in 1967 and ethnomusicologist Dr. David Evans in 1973 when she was known as Jessie Mae Brooks, using the surname from a brief early marriage, but the recordings were not released. 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 indigenous 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 then launched a recording career in the early 1980s, releasing singles produced by Evans on this university label, which later became a production company who licensed their masters to labels like HighTone and Inside Sounds. 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 composed of herself, Abe Young, and Jim Harper on Tav Falco's Panther Burns' Behind the Magnolia Curtain album; she also appeared in another drum group with Young and fife-and-drum band veteran Othar Turner in a televised appearance in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Other recordings of hers were released on the French label Black and Blue, and she performed concerts across the United States and other countries including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada. She received the W. C. Handy Award for best traditional female blues artist in 1987 and 1988.
In 1990 her first American full length album, Feelin' Good, was released, which also won a Handy Award for best acoustic album. Hemphill suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side in 1993, preventing her from playing guitar, resulting in her retiring at that time from her blues career. Her musical background began with playing snare drum and bass drum in the fife-and-drum band led by her grandfather, Sid Hemphill. 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 her 1979 recordings.
She was unique in country blues as a female defying tradition by singing her own original material while accompanying herself on electric guitar and playing tambourine with her foot. She employs a folk-blues open tuning style with a hypnotic drone in her guitar playing instead of relying on standard, 12-bar blues styles. She occasionally was accompanied on a second guitar by producer Evans.
French videographer Marc Oriol produced a documentary on Hemphill called Me & My Guitar, Jessie Mae Hemphill, which was shown on France's TV Cannes in 2001. In 2003 Olga Wilhelmine founded the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation to preserve and archive the indigenous music of northern Mississippi and to provide assistance for musicians in need from the region who could not survive on meager publishing royalties. The same year, HighTone released Heritage of the Blues: Shake It, Baby, a budget CD containing tracks from previous releases, along with three previously unreleased tracks.
In 2004 Wilhelmine and Tyler Austin of the fledgling 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.
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.