The High Water Mark Keeps Rising
Listening to Jessie Mae Hemphill is to experience almost completely pure unvarnished blues. Her music is steeped in her natural familiarity with the ancient roots of Mississippi Hill country traditions while she improvised rhythmically and lyrically to contemporize her sound. A bare bones yet respectful approach to recording resulted in capturing an artist in performance at her absolute prime. While the original recording eventually did much to continue sparking an outside interest in the now famous fife and drum bands of Mississippi, best to remember there simply weren’t many like Jessie Mae Hemphill to begin with, and Hemphill alone is worth the price of admission. This record is important for many reasons, but primarily because you’ll never hear anyone quite like this anywhere else. This is raw, unspoiled, good-natured down home music that Hemphill created in her own distinctive style, one that sounds fresh to this very day.
Jessie Mae Hemphill was immersed in music from an early age in the remote Mississippi area of the time. Her grandfather Sid Hemphill was a blind fiddler who led a string band for over fifty years in Panola County while her aunt Rosa Lee Hill performed and recorded a few records. Jessie Mae Hemphill danced as a girl to the music her parents made at the picnics and parties in the early ‘40s. She began learning to play guitar at the age of eight by watching her relatives perform and she soon began to play to bass drum and snare drum in her grandfather’s fife and drum band.
Bucking tradition, Jessie Mae Hemphill began her own career as a blues singer/guitarist, a rare choice for women of Hemphill’s generation. The blues life was difficult enough for a woman because of the social constrictions let alone the dangers analogous with the life. Jessie Mae Hemphill early on had begun learning how to take care of herself in a hostile world. “My mother carried her gun all the time,” says Hemphill. “She was a pistol-packing mama so I’m a pistol-packing mama.” Hemphill also discovered that male musicians were more than a little jealous of a woman who played music and would try to mess up her performances.
As a performer, Hemphill not only provides her own guitar work but sings her own original compositions, each fact a rarity for the time. She plays electric guitar, the preferred instrument for her generation of blues guitarists. 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 occasional 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 stromping guitar parts act as a rhythm echo to the words and percussion. Vocally, Hemphill is not a belter or shouter, she possesses a sweet if intense melismatic quality in her singing.
Feelin’ Good provides a good sense of what must have been the feel of Hemphill’s entertaining at the rough and tumble gatherings, houseparties 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 unchanged straight into the studio.
The opening song “Feelin’ Good” is the signature piece Hemphill used to open and close her sets. “Streamline Train” has the rhythms of that old mystery train and the song has a small-band (a very small-band) sound. “Tell Me You Love Me” is what she calls a “good feeling song”, a fast high-spirited love tune she wrote “because there’s a lot of us still in love.” The slow blues seethe and simmer on “Shame on You” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go”, one of the first songs Hemphill ever learned.
Hemphill’s songwriting is direct and modern, from “Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby” to the wailing “Eagle Bird”. She breaks some strings on a dance tune “Shake It, Baby” and outlines her family’s music history and her own aspirations on “My Daddy’s Blues”, a song she composed while busking on Beale Street in Memphis. On all but one of the remaining eight tracks, Hemphill provides her own rhythm with a tambourine strapped to her foot or wearing Choctaw leg bells and this is the style of playing she may have used playing on Beale Street for tips. Her final song is “Lord Help the Poor and Needy”, which is likely similar to the gospel solos she sang at church. She wrote this song “from the heart, because I thought about how wicked the world is and we all need God to help us. And I just thought it would be good to sing that and let it go abroad so it might help somebody.”
Because of its geographical isolation, the music of the Northern Mississippi region continued largely undiscovered despite the archivists trawling the rural South. Alan Lomax found his way to the area in 1959 and recorded “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, but the musicians just a few miles to the north remained “unnoticed” for a few decades more.
As ethnomusicologist David Evans recalled to Dennis Rozanski, he first heard Junior Kimbrough one weekend back in 1979 in a tiny packed juke house called Ethel’s in Holly Springs. Already familiar with the music style of the area, Evans was impressed enough to invite regional players including Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Jessie Mae Hemphill to Memphis to record their music for High Water Recording Company. Hemphill’s first single, High Water 408 (“Jessie’s Boogie”/“Standing in My Doorway Crying”, not included on this CD), was released in 1980.
The High Water records were released as 45s and marketed locally at “stores, beauty parlors, auto-parts shops” and also were sold by the artists themselves. The music found some radio time and space on local jukeboxes. Some of Hemphill’s recordings were gathered by the French Vogue label for a 1981 album called She-Wolf that was available only in Western Europe. In 1985, her second single appeared in the U.S., HW 425 (“Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby”/“Shame on You”, included on this CD). Hemphill’s music also appeared on Mississippi Blues Festival 1986 recorded for the France-based Black and Blue label while she on tour in Paris. Within a few years, Jessie Mae Hemphill waltzed away with W.C. Handy Awards for best traditional female blues artist for years 1987 and 1988. Because Hemphill did not even have an album of her own released in the U.S. at the time, Evans firmly maintains she accomplished all this primarily on the strength of her personal appearances.
Then in 1990, Hemphill finally had a solo LP released in America when Feelin’ Good was issued as High Water LP 1012. Feelin’ Good won the Handy for 1991’s best acoustic album. That release carried a color photograph (taken by Gerald Poole of Florence, Alabama) which captured Hemphill dressed to the nines as she dressed onstage and looking mighty proud with one of her earlier Handy awards. In 1994, Hemphill was awarded her third Handy as best traditional female blues artist of the year. However, Feelin’ Good also was one of the last vinyl albums issued by High Water, which has to be one of the more idiosyncratic and esoteric record companies ever to continue to see the light of day.
The High Water Recording Company was established in 1979 as a division of the Memphis State University (now known as the University of Memphis) by David Evans, newly arrived then as a faculty member in the Department of Musicology. Evans was well seasoned in the field of recording by the extensive (and most agree superb) field-recordings he produced between the mid-60s and 1977 (including the music of the Youngblood Brothers, Roosevelt Holts, Jack Owens, and many more). After receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 to record and produce four 45s of Mississippi country blues as a means of stimulating the blues tradition, the High Water Recording Company was born. The records were produced by the High Water Recording Company, a division of the University of Memphis, in cooperation with university programs in Commercial Music and Ethnomusicology (Regional Studies). The High Water releases were well received by blues aficionados, but were regarded as specialized enthnomusicology—seen as a preservation of an interesting though arcane form of music, one that was listened to and appreciated, though worthy often ignored.
As Evans faced the daily agonies of tending to the many demands of a commercially marginal venture and as interest in the blues from anywhere but Chicago temporarily waned in the record-buying public, the new CD format began pushing vinyl records out of the record stores. At this juncture in the early ‘90s, High Water had to make a hard business decision. The company settled into dormancy and their catalog slowly fell out of print as the vinyl records remaining in the bins were purchased and taken home.
In the late ‘90s, a deal was forged with HighTone to begin re-releasing the High Water records internationally in CD format. Feelin’ Good was the second of High Water records that HighTone re-issued. The project is just beginning, as over the next four years, 20 albums of High Water’s resurrected catalog will be offered on CD. Many of the scheduled releases have been out of print for several years, although some are previously unreleased High Water tracks. In charge of issuing the CD’s, HighTone will also buffer the administrative and business headaches. In manufacturing and distribution, HighTone will be doing their part to assure the music of the Northern Mississippi highlands retains its now-fashionable reputation.
After suffering a stroke that paralyzed her left side, Jessie Mae Hemphill has retired from touring and returned to Senatobia, Mississippi, where she lives with her pack of poodles and enjoys receiving mail from her many fans. She told Evans recently she sings now only for the Lord.
Feelin’ Good is a must listen for anyone serious about the blues. I happened to hear just two songs off this album on my car radio recently, broadcast courtesy of a local community radio station’s blues program, and I continued straight on into my small town where I miraculously found my own copy. To capture some of Hemphill’s spirit and personality, she said she composed “Cowgirl Blues” because “I love to wear the cowboy hats, cowboy boots, cowboy clothes, but I didn’t have the horse. So I said when I did get the money, I was gonna buy me a horse, and then I’d be a cowgirl from Texas.” The song lopes along in a canter-like rhythm as Hemphill sings, “I’m a cowgirl / Ride the wild, wild West / See I wear my two guns / Sure don’t take no mess”. She ends the song with the simple line, “I’m a cowgirl / I wear my cowboy hat.”