A five-time W.C. Handy award-winner and the fourth generation of a venerable musical family, Jessie Mae Hemphill (1923-2006), from the North Mississippi Hill Country, sang songs wrenched from her own life experience, celebrating the transformative power of the blues for audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe. Cree McCree met Jessie at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1989 and stayed close to her over the remaining years of her life. Cree recounts some personal encounters for PKM
Jessie Mae Hemphill was at the peak of her career as one of the few female country blues artists to emerge since Memphis Minnie when I first saw her perform in 1989. Flashing sequins and rhinestones, her high heel driving a foot-powered tambourine while her voice soared above the hypnotic drone of her electric Gibson guitar, the She-Wolf of Como, a.k.a. the Delta Queen, was the North Mississippi Hill Country’s high priestess of hard times. A five-time W.C. Handy award-winner and the fourth generation of a venerable musical family, Jessie sang songs wrenched from her own life experience, celebrating the transformative power of the blues for audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe.
“She-Wolf” – Jessie Mae Hemphill:
She was also just a hoot to hang with. Though I was in my early 40s, and Jessie was a decade older, we hit it off like a couple of schoolgirls when we met in May 1989 at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. After her own mesmerizing set, we forged an instant bond when we teamed up for some impromptu boogie during Big Jack Johnson’s “Catfish Blues” that set the whole crowd to dancing.
Before she left New York, Jessie invited me to visit her in the crossroads town of Como, Mississippi. I took her up on that offer that September, when we enjoyed raising eyebrows traipsing through the aisles of the local Bag ‘n’ Save in matching Crown Royal caps. I’d been sent to Mississippi by Spin magazine to do a big spread on Delta Blues pegged to the late ‘80s blues revival, and Jessie was one of eight artists I profiled in that piece. But the scant 300 words I was allotted for the Delta Queen barely scratched the surface of her story and our experiences together.
In November 1989, when Jessie returned to NYC for the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival, she stayed in my Sullivan Street apartment and we hit the town together. After a stroke forced her to hang up her guitar in 1993, we kept in touch periodically, and I wore the necklace Jessie gave me in Como when I got married in 1995. Years later, in 2004, shortly after she recorded her swansong double CD, Dare You to Do It Again, I drove up from my current home in New Orleans to visit her in Senatobia, Mississippi, where we had the last of several lengthy interviews before her death in 2006.
The story of our relationship, drawn partly from contemporary journal entries, montages those interviews with my memories and ends with an oral history of Jessie Mae Hemphill, told in her own words.
Hangin’ with the She-Wolf in Como (September 1989)
There’s no running water in the Delta Queen’s castle, a dilapidated trailer lit by the static of an old TV, where overdue utility bills are stashed in a bedside Bible and an unkempt menagerie of poodles yammers to be fed. After one too many heartbreaks, Jessie has sworn off men for the moment, and sleeps with a loaded shotgun to fend off potential intruders. But her spirit rises far above circumstance: in her music; in the vibrant luminescence of her watercolors of guardian angels; and in the backwoods magic that whips up a fife-and-drum picnic that feeds an entire neighborhood of children, young blades and do-ragged grandmas on a rack of barbequed ribs intended for two.
Jessie Mae Hemphill Throws a Picnic (Journal Entry, 9/27/89)
Dora Strickland sits framed by the open door of a small wooden shack tucked behind one of those tidy brick bungalows in Como, Mississippi, that Jessie Mae Hemphill is determined to buy someday. She’s a big-boned woman, and a handsome one, though she’s long since parted company with her teeth and the toes of her tennis shoes have been cut open to allow her bunioned feet to breathe. She’s also crazier than a loon, Jessie tells me.
Jessie has sworn off men for the moment, and sleeps with a loaded shotgun to fend off potential intruders. But her spirit rises far above circumstance: in her music; in the vibrant luminescence of her watercolors of guardian angels; and in the backwoods magic that whips up a fife-and-drum picnic that feeds an entire neighborhood of children, young blades and do-ragged grandmas on a rack of barbequed ribs intended for two.
Though her son, Napoleon, is a full-grown man of 60-odd years, Dora keeps a tight rein on the legendary fife player. She managed to hold sway over two wives and now rules singlehandedly over Napoleon’s comings and goings – no small task, since the Pan of Mississippi is in constant demand at fife & drum picnics in the surrounding hill country. Dora’s iron will may explain Napoleon’s boylike demeanor; he’s roly-poly round with a cue-ball head, apple cheeks, and an open-faced smile that seems perpetually delighted at the ways of the world.
Dora likes to hold center stage and was quite the dancer in her day, Jessie tells me. As if to prove this point, Dora shuffles to the front porch and begins to roll her belly in a sinuous motion under the faded print of her house dress, grinning at the audience of neighborhood girls who’ve gathered to egg her on. She’s a sight to behold, this 80-year-old woman with a do-rag tied round her balding head, heaving that belly for all it’s worth, as sensuous and snakelike as any veiled belly dancer charming the men in Istanbul.
“I don’t know how Dora does that,” says Jessie. “My belly goes out but it don’t go in! Can you do it?” Turns out I can (though not with Dora’s practiced grace); long-ago belly dancing lessons stand me in good stead. As I roll my stomach for the onlookers, Dora claps her approval, and I am transformed from a curiosity – Jessie’s white-girl trophy – into instant acceptance as a participant in the culture.
Once the ice has been broken, Jessie invites Napoleon and Dora over for barbecue. Dora’s not about to budge, but we cajole her into letting Napoleon on the loose, on one condition: he catches a ride with a neighbor later on. “That’s Dora,” whispers Jessie. “She don’t want him ridin in a car with two women, no way.”
Back at her trailer, after we’ve stopped to pick up beer and a pint of vodka (“Napoleon loves his ‘wodka’”), Jessie asks the young boy who’s been mowing her lawn to haul out the barbecue: a sturdy unit of hand-wrought iron set in a car-wheel base. We’re still not sure if it will be much of a gathering; will Napoleon even show? Then Jessie’s neighbor Patty Ann pulls up, jumps into action with the charcoal briquettes, and it’s clear we have a picnic in the making. Once Dora makes good on her promise to dispatch Napoleon to Jessie’s, it’s time for the party to begin.
The Mississippi moon, three days past the fullness of its prime, is still puffed up with pleasure. Napoleon plays a siren call of notes on his fife – as true and clear as a piccolo, though it’s only a hollow of cane. Soon the drums join in, Jessie beating out the earth tones on her big bass drum, Rabbit the rapid-fire staccato on the snare.
Though the only bonfire is the smoldering grill, and we’re surrounded not by the leafy camouflage of the woods but by the open expanse of the trailer court that serves as Jessie’s front yard, our informal barbecue morphs into a full-fledged hill country picnic when the fife and drum music kicks in. Copped from the white man’s military corps, and steeped in the rhythmic thrum of indigenous tribal drums, the hypnotic repetitions evoke not the battlefields of war but an ecstatic celebration of the senses, a dance older than the hills dipping down to the Delta. The fife seduces, insinuating itself into the body as the bright major key segues into minor, and the drums roll like waves onto shores delineated by the fife.
Now the neighbors come, drawn from their surrounding homes by the mesmerizing call of the music. And they come not to complain about the noise but to participate in the magic. Even Jessie’s nemesis, the dog-killing driver she suspects of running over her favorite poodle, is drawn to the outer ring of concentric circles converging on the lawn. Though she doesn’t dare cross Jessie’s property line, her sons are bolder, moving to the ring of cars and lounging tentatively on an old Caddy. One is brazen enough to ask for a beer when he learns that the beer isn’t for sale, as per local custom, but has been provided gratis by Jessie’s guest as her ticket of admission to this ad hoc musicale.
Close to the drums, in the inner circle, sits Miss Dee, an ancient Black woman with a ramrod spine and immense dignity. Jessie wraps one of her furs around Miss Dee’s frail shoulders; it’s late September and the first snap of fall is crisping the air. Miss Dee never moves from her spot, but keeps her cane in constant motion, beating out a cross-rhythm with the drums. She was one of the great dancers of her granddaddy’s day, Jessie tells me, and Miss Dee’s eyes are alight with the flickering forms of a past now recaptured in the old, familiar cadences.
Also close in are the little girls, who begin to move, shyly at first and then with increased abandon, giving themselves up with laughter. Jessie’s worked up a sweat on the bass drum, her hair is flying and the straps slip off her shoulders, the warm brown curves of her back glistening under the moon while her gold teeth flash in the light from the trailer’s single bulb. And she’s just warming up for the main act.
“Hey y’all,” Jessie announces, after she unstraps the drum and tunes up her Gibson guitar. “This is Jessie Mae Hemphill speaking, so listen up. Everybody out there wanting to catch up, catch up now. Cause there’s a big train comin’ and it don’t carry no hypocrites.”
A few trademark cackles later, Jessie launches into the chugging rhythms of “Train, Train,” and the music gets downer and deeper as the She-Wolf carries us down the tracks and segues into the slow burn of “Used to Be.”
Then it’s Napoleon’s turn to switch gears, take a swig of vodka, grab his guitar, and start begging “Baby Please Don’t Go.” The one-two punch of “I Feel It” and “Sure Don’t Worry Me” inspires one of the Caddy-leaning guys to shout “I’m gonna grab me a fox!” as the party starts getting rowdier, spurring Jessie to take back the ad hoc stage with “Shame on You.”
Patty Ann’s keeping time with her feet while she stands guard over the slabs of ribs charring to perfection on the grill, the pungent smell of smoke whipping clouds around the dancers. Her 12-year-old boy is rubber-hipping a kind of backwoods breakdance, while I get down with Clemmonce. He’s a virile six-footer with a crystal and gold chain looped around the grey-flecked hairs of his chest, his movements loose and lanky as a teenager. Clemmonce purrs an ongoing seducer’s plea in my ear, detailing potential delights, and is unphased by my refusal to succumb to his ploys.
Always I walk a fine line here, as the living emblem of Black men’s fantasies about northern white girls. Everyone makes their bid, even elder statesman Son Thomas, and with time I learn to deflect these offers gracefully, citing my role as a working journalist. The men seem to accept this, and tonight I am bolstered by an unspoken pact with Jessie. This is our night, a night for girltalk and giggling under the covers in her trailer after the ribs have been eaten, the beer has been drunk, and the drums have been put away. And the men understand that Jessie speaks for me as well, when she clears her yard at the end of the evening by announcing, in no uncertain terms:
“Ain’t no legs going up in the air tonight!”
Hangin’ with the She-Wolf on Sullivan Street (November 1989)
“Lordy, girl! You tryin to kill me? I thought all the buildings in New York City had elevators!”
Jessie Mae Hemphill has finally reached the top landing of my fourth-floor walkup on Sullivan St., bitching and moaning all the way, while my pal Linda Kelly and I play sherpa toting the bulky suitcase, makeup case and wig box that hold all her glitzy stage gear. John Allison, son of blues and jazz piano great Mose Allison and my tour guide into the blues, is carrying Jessie’s Gibson, and he’s not just along for the ride. As the founder of The Mississippi Blues Project, John organized the St. Ann’s concert where Jessie and I met to shoot footage for a documentary film. This weekend, as part of the nine-day Benson & Hedges Blues Festival, where Jessie will be performing, he’s screening the trailer for It Hurts Me Too and hosting an evening with R.L. Burnside, another great North Mississippi artist.
Trailer for It Hurts Me Too, about four Mississippi Delta Blues performers, including Jessie Mae Hemphill, who came to NYC to play a concert:
But all that’s still on the horizon. Tonight, after she freshens up and settles into my bedroom (I’m couching it for the weekend), Jessie treats us to a private living room concert while my cassette tape is rolling.
“That was Muddy Waters,” she says after putting her own spin on “Baby Please Don’t Go.” “And this is Howlin’ Wolf, Jessie Mae style,” she adds, launching into “Baby, Where’d You Stay Last Night.” “I don’t play like anyone but myself.”
And the men understand that Jessie speaks for me as well, when she clears her yard at the end of the evening by announcing, in no uncertain terms:
“Ain’t no legs going up in the air tonight!”
You sure don’t, Jessie. I uncork another bottle of bubbly when Jessie announces “I need more champagne!” Then she’s off and running with “Used to Be,” prompting Linda to shout “Woot! That was nice!”
“I put some new stuff in there,” Jessie notes with a sly grin. *I play all six of them strings, when I’m playin like that. And every one of them be havin chillun. I be feelin good!”
The good times keep on rolling when we walk down West Houston to Brothers BBQ, where Mark Grandfield’s blowing harp with his blues band Mystic Chain. Jessie and Linda and I get down on the packed dance floor, where the crowd makes way for the Delta Queen when Mark calls her up to the bandstand. When she busts out “Jessie’s Boogie,” everyone goes ballistic, transforming Brothers into a smokin hot backwoods juke joint.
Tomorrow night, Jessie will play a fine solo concert at Harlem’s Schomburg Center while the audience sits respectfully listening (except for me, of course, who finds a spot in the back to dance.) But tonight’s the real deal, and almost as rowdy as the Como picnic, complete with grilled ribs and plenty of beer to wash ‘em down. By the time we drag our danced-out asses back up those four flights of stairs, it’s nearly 3 AM. Jessie lights one last Virginia Slim before hitting the hay, and leaves me with a final pearl of wisdom:
“You gotta slow down, girl,” she says, as much to herself as to me.
Jessie gave the same advice to Linda that weekend, when we were all running on empty amped by blues, booze and adrenaline. “And she was right,” says Linda, who still recalls Jessie vividly more than 30 years later:
“Jessie Mae Hemphill made me feel safe. She was grounded, and she gave me a green card to let my spirit ride: It’s OK to be strong and female. You never have to apologize, you just ride. And never hold back. I had just moved to New York City, and Jessie gave me courage. She made me feel so comfortable and loved.”
Hangin with She-Wolf in Senatobia (July 2004)
Jessie Mae Hemphill don’t sing the blues no more. (Or so she claims). Just spiritual songs like she learned at her mama’s knee. And since a stroke left her partially paralyzed a decade ago, she can no longer play her propulsive open-tuned guitar. But when the spirit moves her, she can still “Boogie All Night Long,” like she sang on her first record, She-Wolf. Jessie jammed till 5 a.m. making Dare You to Do It Again, a two-CD benefit album of spirituals recorded live with a cast of dozens at Sherman Cooper’s farm in Como, MS. And right now in her trailer in nearby Senatobia, she starts to boogie in her wheelchair listening to “Porch Logic Remix,” the album’s last track.
“I kinda like this,” she says, warming up to DJ Logic’s deep house spin on the clamorous fife & drum and droning guitars of the Mississippi session, remixed in a New York studio. Then her own voice loops into the mix – complete with samples of her pealing cackle, which ricochet off the walls as the drums dive deeper. “Oh lord, we’re gettin down now!” she hoots, lifting her lapdog Pookie on her hind legs to shake a tailfeather. “That be good for dancin, chile!”
Recorded well into the session when spirits were starting to fly, Jessie also cuts loose with “Treat Me Right,” a 24-minute deep drone epic that could almost be an outtake from the Velvet Undergound’s infamous Austin sessions. About ten minutes into her stream of consciousness vocalizing, which makes no mention of the Lord and sounds suspiciously like the blues, she brings in the tambourine, driving the band to dig deeper.
“That wasn’t no blues,” retorts Jessie, scratching Pookie behind the ears while flashing me a gold-toothed grin. “That was just somethin I was doin. Whatever jumped outta my mouth that’s what I done. That’s the way I do all of them. When somethin come up, I just let it roll out.”
Jessie Mae Hemphill In Her Own Words
On Her Musical Heritage
All my daddy’s brothers and sisters, and mama’s, way on back to the first generation was musicians. I’m the fourth generation. Granddaddy never did go in the fields. He raised his girls playin music. They’d go with him, help him make the money. One be playin guitar, one banjo, one floor bass. So he had his own daughter band. When I came along, I got up there.
I was playin drum when I was nine. The big drum, too — always be some man to hold the big drum up for me and I would stand up on the Coca Cola box. I made more money than my granddaddy did. They just gave me money, money, money. I was so little and could beat that drum and wouldn’t miss no time and people just be hollerin.
I done learned myself guitar. My mama played too, I learned by lookin at her, I had music in my head all the time. When I was 9, 10 years old I hear something on the record player and come home and play it. I could play anything.
Fife and drum come from Indian peoples and all my daddy’s people are Indian peoples. And all my mama’s folk, too, back to the fifth generation. Indians used to beat on them drums, on the tom toms. Rum tum tum, rum tum tum. I was dancin with the big drums at the World’s Fair in Nashville when Reagan came to that, and I dedicated an Indian war song to Reagan. But he don’t help the poor people none. He help the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
On Her Songwriting Process
I get the words first. And when they come, I go get the guitar so that the title’ll come to me. And as soon as I sing that first verse, another one be there just like somebody be writin it on the wall for me. I don’t know what I’m gonna say, but it be there for me to sing. I keep on singin and pickin, and the tune of the song be right there too. The tune be right there already when the tune come to me, the tune is already in the song.
“Shotgun” and “Standing in the Doorway Cryin,” those come when my heart was broken, I said I’m gonna make me a record and get on away from him. And I went to town and bought me a mic and and amp. I already had my guitar. And I went back home, and when I got “Standing in the Doorway Cryin” goin, I played it all night. Till the sun rose, girl, I picked it all night. Drinkin coffee all night and played it all night. And I said I know this gonna be a record.
“Standing in the Doorway Crying,” Jessie Mae Hemphill, performing live:
“My Daddy Blues” and “Train Train” come to me fast. And “I Feel It,” that’s my theme song, come to me fast. On stage, I just line ‘em up in my mind when I get up there. I can go from one to the other and just keep on doin that all the way through. And not play the same one twice, less someone ask me to.
Religious songs come to me just like the blues. I was out there workin in the yard, nobody home but me and my granddaddy, and I went to hummin and hummin and I went to singin “gonna be a fire you can’t put out.” Don’t nobody sing it like me, you hear it in churches everywhere now, but nobody had the verses I had. And when I quit, Granddaddy said, woman ― he called me woman ― where’d you get that song? I said, I don’t know, Grandpa, it just come to me a while ago. He said sing it again, and let’s play it on the fiddle and guitar.
On Being a Black Musician and the Legacy of Alan Lomax
I’ll tell ya one thing. My granddaddy and mama and them all made records and never got any money for ‘em, never did get to make no movies, nothin. At the time, they didn’t want no Blacks to make no kind of records and things, they didn’t let ‘em. All the ones making records when grandddaddy and them was playing was white hillbillies and country music. And they wouldn’t allow a Black to make nothin like that.
Then Alan Lomax came down and recorded my granddaddy in Sledge, Mississippi, when they was playin for a picnic. And he made a record, that was in 1960 somethin and now things done change a little better for Blacks to make a record. And that’s why Alan say he came down, cause they wasn’t given the Blacks a chance to make records and be on the radio.
And I went back home, and when I got “Standing in the Doorway Cryin” goin, I played it all night. Till the sun rose, girl, I picked it all night. Drinkin coffee all night and played it all night. And I said I know this gonna be a record.
When Alan was doin granddaddy’s record I was livin in Memphis. And Alan wrote to me, he was gonna come down. But he had a flat that night and didn’t have no spare so he couldn’t get over. Or I would have made one with Alan too.
On the Life of a Touring Female Musician
Well, it’s harder on her travelin than it is for a man. Because she’s got to be kind of scared all the time that somebody gonna hurt her or somethin. I don’t be scared, but I kinda watch out for myself. When people call me on the telephone I say look, I’m comin by myself but y’all gotta take care of me. You have somebody to stay with me and take me to my motel. Get me to my room cause I ain’t comin back out! So they always have somebody to take care of me and I don’t be scared. I’m not gonna be searchin around here tryin to get a cab for myself, not me.
The way I gets my jobs is, I give people my telephone number and they calls me, like they used to call David [Evans, her former white touring partner and manager]. And I set my own job up, I say this is my price, and I get my money now. Before, they would set price of a thousand dollars maybe, and he’d tell me the folks was just gonna pay me $300 or something. The rest of the $1,000 David would get. But I’m gonna make all my money from now on.
The first concert I played that I made my first thousand dollars in was New York. New York’s been good to me, and I love it too. When I get [to a venue] they all be so nice to me. They so crazy about me cause I be so friendly with them. They say Jessie, you don’t act like them other movie star women that acts like they has rocks in their jaw, don’t wanna say nothing to their fans. They crazy — that’s where their money comes from. When you be friendly with your fans then the man enjoys payin you for playin. I love my audience, I talk to them and tell them I love ‘em. I say, don’t count me as no big shot, you just count me as regular old Jessie. Just myself, that’s all I want to be.
I always think I can do anything I wanna do and I tries it. You never know what you can do until you tried it, and you got to wanna do it to try it. And when you try it, boy, boy, boy — if it don’t work out one way, it’ll work out another. Right?
On Fending Off Bullies & Lecherous Guys
I never let my stepdaddy do nothin to me. And when my stepdaddy try to do somethin to my mama, I get the shotgun. And if mama hadn’t went to cryin, I’d a blowed his brains out.
The boys like the girls that go into the bushes with them, the back seat riders. But when I was goin to school, I was the one they liked. They be tryin to get at me all the time. I scratch ‘em in the face, they was scared of me. I said I’m doin like a cemetery: I’m just takin in, I ain’t puttin out nothin.
I told all these girls who were goin to school and got pregnant, I said you all is crazy cause you all gonna carry these babies home to your mama. I ain’t carryin no baby home to my mama. I said, I’m gonna knock these boys down, give em bleedin noses, boy. Those boys scared to come up to me! I hit them guys in the nose! [laughs] I’m a mean little sucker. I scratch their eyes out. I glad I did it. I didn’t never get pregnant. Those other girls, after those boys get them pregnant they was gone.
On Helping Old People, and the Wisdom of Age
I met an old man one time, when I was livin in Memphis. I used to help old people cross the street and things. One day, I met an old man when I was goin downtown. I was sharp as a tack and this was a real old man. And the sun was shining pretty, you know. And I said hi, we have a pretty day today, don’t we? He said yeah, and I stopped and talked to him. I hadn’t decided to play no blues then. He said, you know, you’re the only young person that ever stopped and said somethin to me. These young people don’t have time to talk to old people. I said yes, but I do, cause someday I’m gonna be an old lady too. I might get treated bad, but I might get treated good by somebody.
I love old people cause I can learn more from old peoples than I can from young peoples. And he said you’s a beautiful girl, that smile you got is so beautiful. He said I wanna tell you this and then I let you go. Keep smilin he said, that smile you got will take you all over the world. And it has! I didn’t even believe it was comin true! I got a whole lotta power I ain’t even used yet.