Honoring North Mississippi’s Blues Tradition

by | Jul 30, 2007

I received a notification on MySpace from blues musician, Olga, about this afternoon’s headstone dedication for Jessie Hemphill. Hemphill, who passed away last year, was best known as a blues guitarist, songwriter and vocalist. She toured widely in Europe and won several W.C. Handy Awards for her recordings.

The dedication ceremony will take place beginning at 4:45 pm at the Senatobia Memorial Cemetery, which is located on Highway 51 South in Senatobia, Mississippi. Reverend John Wilkins, the son of early blues and gospel recording artist Robert Wilkins, will lead a prayer service, after which attendees are invited to join in a group performance of Hemphill’s “Lord Help the Poor and Needy.”

“By erecting this tombstone we wanted to publicly memorialize the important contributions to north Mississippi blues traditions made by Jessie Mae,” says Olga Wilhelmine Mathus, who founded the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of north Mississippi music. “Her music was timeless, and we wanted to ensure that people can discover and learn about her music and the musical traditions of her family for generations to come.”

The Foundation has received major support from the Alan Lomax Archive in the form of donated photographic prints and field recordings of Sid Hemphill, Rosa Lee and Sydney Hemphill, (Jessie’s grandfather and aunts), Fred McDowell, Lucius Smith, the Pratcher brothers, and the Youngs.

[UPDATE] Thanks to the instant satisfaction iTunes provides, I’m listening to Jessie Mae’s 2003 release “Get Right Blues”. Assembled by folklorist Dr. David Evans, the album collects 15 unreleased tracks from 1979, 1984 and 1985. According to All Music Guide, this album is part history lesson, part folk-gospel revival, part boogie and doesn’t contain a single lame track.