Baby Please Don’t Go: Jessie Mae Hemphill

On July 22, 2006 one of the most distinctive and powerful voices of the blues fell silent when Jessie Mae Hemphill died from complications to an ulcer after a long and painful struggle. She was 83. Though she never gained the recognition of fellow North Mississippi blues artists like Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, Hemphill’s driving, hypnotic guitar boogie was some of the toughest and most mesmerizing hill country blues ever cut. With her open-tuned hollow body guitar driving an amp to break up, Hemphill rode the skittish, swaying rhythm of her songs, crying the blues with a voice that rolled between threatening, heartbroken, sensual, and angry. There was deep, lonesome sadness in her music, but when she leaned into that endless Mississippi boogie, Jessie Mae made you move. Hemphill released two critically acclaimed albums, the incredible She-Wolf in 1981 and Feelin’ Good in 1991. In 1993, just as her career began to take off, Hemphill suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body and prevented her from playing. She spent the rest of her life in Senatobia, Mississippi with her beloved dog Sweet Pea, struggling to make ends meet and singing in the local church.

Hemphill died penniless but not alone, and not forgotten. For two years, the friends and fans who loved her have raised money for a tombstone to honor her life and music. On July 30, a headstone will be dedicated at her grave, at the Senatobia Memorial Cemetery. On Highway 51.

-Ari Surdoval

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