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Baby Please Don’t Go
A Remembrance of Jessie Mae Hemphill
by Catfish Keith


Jessie Mae Hemphill "She Wolf" CD CoverMy memories of Jessie Mae go way back to the late 1980’s.  We first met her in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  Rich Jones would bring her in for the Eureka Blues Festival.  When I first witnessed her on stage, it was a sight to see.  She came out with a big gold sequined hat, feathers flying off the top.  Gold sequined dress, popping and glittering in the sun.  Gold in her teeth, too.  And, just in case nobody noticed her, she had gold Christmas garlands wrapped around her Gibson guitar.

She would start her set onstage with one of her main theme songs, Feelin’ Good, pumping out the insistent, driving beat, based in the one chord Mississippi hill country hypnotic rhythm that has since set the world on fire.  Really, it’s the rhythms of her life and family and a musical tradition all based in Senatobia and Como, Mississippi.

Her voice was a unique and fresh one.  She wrote many of her own songs and certainly put her own soulful stamp on all of the songs she sang, some from the blues tradition, some from old folk songs, and quite a few pieces were what she called “church songs.”

Her approach on guitar was unique as well.  Like her Mississippi neighbors and friends, such as Fred MacDowell and R.L. Burnside, she tuned her guitar to what she called “Vasserpoo,” which is an open D tuning, and I always saw her play a mid-fifties Gibson thin hollowbody electric guitar.  I never saw her use a bottleneck or slide.  With this she created haunting, trance-inducing, riff based rhythms, which on her faster numbers could cause a hip-shaking frenzy that I’ve seldom felt since. 

Legend has it that her music has caused people to do backflips while walking down the street, crawl up trees and howl, quit perfectly good jobs...

There are only a rare few times in life that music has made such magic in my life.  It’s like the planets all lined up, and all the joy possible in life was brought forth in that moment.  Jessie Mae’s voice was bittersweet and had a purity and certain sort of natural innocence to it.  This, joined with her pulsing guitar and jingling Choctaw Indian bells hypnotized us and took us to a higher plane.

Her sound was often augmented by a drummer and a slide guitarist.  When I saw her that first time, Rich Jones was with her onstage, playing his old National Triolian, and they hit frequencies together that was nothing less than a divine moment.  On her records, especially on Feelin’ Good and She Wolf, this synchronicity was achieved with her longtime partner, Dr. David Evans on guitar and her neighbor R.L. Boyce on drums.

The rhythms and feel go back to the hill country picnic tradition of Fife and Drum music.  You can hear this in it’s pure form in the recordings of her friend and neighbor, Othar Turner.  Jessie Mae’s grandfather, Sid Hemphill, was a giant inspiration to her music.  He played violin, fife and drum and other instruments.  Her aunt, Rosa Lee, also sang and recordings can be be heard of her with Mississippi Fred MacDowell.  The fife and drum sound is the vital heartbeat pulse at the heart of Jessie Mae’s music.  These rhythms and sounds, to my mind, are the basis for much of the “second line” rhythms of lots of New Orleans music, such as Professor Longhair and many others.

My wife Penny and I kept on seeing her and getting to know her on our treks down south.  Several times we’d meet up and have great times together, at the Eureka Springs Blues Festival in the late 80’s and early ‘90s, in Memphis at the Handy Awards events, and at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena. 

On one tour, I was playing a gig in a restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi that Dick Waterman helped set up for me.  We called up Jessie Mae and she drove over from her place in Senatobia.  I was setting up my gear to play, and, since all this restaurant seemed to have to offer was hot dogs (??), Penny and Jessie Mae went out to pick up something to eat.  They came back a little later with a pizza box with some barbecue and fish and greens for us.  When I was playing my set, Jessie Mae was shouting out, “Hey, Catfeesh!” and “Alright! Alright!” and laughing, and proceeded to play beautiful pulsing paradiddles with a knife and fork on the pizza box. 

She loved that song I did, “Pepper in My Shoe!” and over these youthful years for me, she would ask after me; “Where’s Pepper in My Shoe at?”  There were many great times in those few years together.  She was so much fun and was a total sweetheart to us.  She was doing great at that time, often touring all over Europe and taking her music and big spirit to festival and concert stages to fans all over the world.

It was in the spring of 1993 that Jessie Mae had the stroke that brought her music career to an abrupt halt.  The stroke paralyzed her left side, leaving her unable to play guitar.  We continued to try to keep in touch with her.  She stayed in her trailer in Senatobia and for the most part, was mostly forgotten about.  We tried to do what we could to keep her spirits up and let her know she was still a very important part of our lives.  She went through some pretty hard times then.  Often, when we tried to call, her phone would be disconnected.  She lived in a rough neighborhood, but somehow kept going for many years. 

There were quite a few good folks that did what they could to help her out, in many ways, with food, funds, and some health care.  She was provided with a new trailer home to live in for many of her final years.  She had a little dog named Sweet Pea for years, and after Sweet Pea passed, and then she had another dog called Pee Wee.

In the last few months, Jessie Mae’s health turned for the worst.  She eventually developed an infection that caused severe stomach ulcers. She died July 22nd, 2006 at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis.

Her giant spirit, love of life, faith, transcendent musical legacy, and her true friendship was a great part of our lives, and we will miss her so. 

Goodbye, Jessie Mae.

Catfish Keith & Penny Cahill



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