JESSIE MAE HEMPHILL
One of the few female performers of country blues, Jessie Mae Hemphill (c. 1923 – 2006) was a multi-instrumentalist who performed in local fife and drum bands before gaining international recognition in the 1980s as a vocalist and guitarist. Her grandfather, Sid Hemphill, was a leading musician in the area, and his daughters, including Jessie Mae’s mother Virgie Lee, all played drums and stringed instruments. She is buried here at the Senatobia Memorial Cemetery.
Jessie Mae Hemphill, who struck a unique chord with blues fans due to her colorful personality and attire and her choice of instruments, represented deep and rich traditions in the Senatobia area. Her great-grandfather, Dock Hemphill, was a fiddler who was born a slave, and her grandfather, Sid Hemphill (c. 1876-1963), played fiddle, guitar, banjo, drums, fife, mandolin, organ, and quills. Folklorists Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress and Lewis Jones of Fisk University documented Hemphill’s broad repertoire at a recording session in Sledge in 1942. Lomax, who recorded music around the world and returned to record Hemphill in 1959, later recalled that encountering Hemphill's fife and drum music was the “main find of my whole career.”
Sid Hemphill’s daughters, Rosa Lee, Sidney, and Virgie Lee, were all musicians, and when Jessie Mae was a small girl her grandfather inspired her to take up guitar, harmonica, and drums. During the 1950s she sang briefly with bands in Memphis, but most of her early musical experiences were local. Folklorist George Mitchell, who included chapters on her and her aunt Rosa Lee Hill in his book Blow My Blues Away, recorded her in the late '60s. Her first 45 rpm single, produced by Dr. David Evans, was released on the University of Memphis' High Water label in 1980. Hemphill subsequently toured the U.S. and Europe, recorded several albums, and won several W. C. Handy Awards for traditional blues. She played drums behind fife player Otha Turner on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and gained broader acclaim via her appearance in the 1992 documentary film Deep Blues. In 1993 Hemphill suffered a stroke that prevented her from playing guitar, but she continued to sing, and in 2004 she was featured singing and playing tambourine on the album Dare You to Do It Again, which featured many local musicians.