One weird thing about Southern music is that some locations and forms — like, for instance, the Delta Blues — get recognized and fetishized as being important and other music, made by artists just a few counties over to the east — say, Hill Country music — feels forgotten.
I think part of the reason for this is that, once a narrative develops, it’s really hard to dislodge it. I mean, here we are, still telling each other that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads. He did not. But more importantly, even though we know that the biggest blues performers of the 20s and 30s were women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the story we tell about the Blues is that it came out of the Mississippi Delta a product of lone men with guitars.
Everything that doesn’t fit that narrative doesn’t quite get heard. The importance of blueswomen, even in the Delta, is downplayed. The rich musical heritage of places like the Hill Country gets ignored.
But I wonder if that might not be changing. In an age when we have so many electronic resources — just look at the Alan Lomax Archive, for instance — can things that were recorded and preserved every stay completely “lost?”
Let’s consider the possible legacy of Sid Hemphill (1876–1961), a musician and band-leader from Panola County, Mississippi. On the one hand, other than some tapes he did for Alan Lomax, he wasn’t a recording artist. On the other hand, he was widely known and heard around North Mississippi. And he’s an interesting artist in that he played a wide variety of music — from the fife and drum music so closely associated with the Hill Country to the same kinds of country fiddle tunes Lomax would find Muddy Waters and his band playing in the Delta. And yet, I’m sure most of you would say you’ve never heard of him.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re trying to tell the difference between music from the Mississippi Delta and music from the neighboring Mississippi Hill Country, the music of the Delta often sounds like it ends too soon. Take, for instance, Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” which is the shortest two and a half minutes in music:
And compare it to Sid Hemphill’s “Eighth of January” which is also two and a half minutes, but it takes all day to get through.
The techniques he uses to make his minutes so long are pretty obvious — there’s the droning bass line and the way things just repeat and repeat, so you’re not sure if this is the second or fortieth time he’s sung this verse.
Another difference between the two is that the Delta blues tend to sound more “normal” to modern ears, because we are still surrounded by music with its roots in those songs. Books have been written on how British skiffle bands fell in love with old American Delta blues and turn around and sold it back to the U.S. as rock and roll. But Hill Country music sounds unfamiliar, weirdly old-fashioned.
Earlier this year, Amanda Petrusich at Pitchfork lamented Hemphill’s obscurity, “Hemphill’s work incorporates attributes of the Mississippi Hill Country’s better-known traditions (the droning guitar blues mastered by McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, and the fife-and-drum music practiced by Otha Turner, Napolian Strickland, and Hemphill himself), but part of its pre-eminence concerns its inimitability.”
But here’s the problem with fretting about Hemphill’s legacy. Look at the names Petrusich mentions. Where’s Rosalie Hill, Hemphill’s daughter? Or Jessie Mae Hemphill, his granddaughter? How can you overlook them.
The Alan Lomax Archive has a great recording of Rosalie Hill doing “Rolled and Tumbled:”
Note the droning guitar and the way Hill’s voice has a kind of tinny quality to it, as if she’s singing through her nose. And, again, this is a short song that feels like it must go on forever. This is her own music, but you can hear how her father influenced her.
Now, check out her niece, Jessie Mae Hemphill, singing “Eagle Bird:”
There’s the driving rhythm, this time held on track by a tambourine, the droning guitar that repeats itself, and Hemphill’s voice, which retains a kind of metallic quality, a kind of sense that we’re hearing it filtered over an AM radio, even when she is belting something out. Sure, the song claims to be six minutes long, but doesn’t it seem like it goes on for decades? If the Hemphills have one supreme gift, it’s the ability to make music that screws with your sense of time.
And that eagle bird. Here it is again in Valerie June’s “You Can’t Be Told.”:
June is very open about her debt to Jessie Mae Hemphill, as she explained to NPR in August:
I started to be presented with people like Jessie Mae Hemphill, because I lived in Memphis, and when she passed, there was a fundraiser to help them bury her, basically. And I was like, Jessie Mae, huh? Who is that? So I started listening to it, and she didn’t have the traditional voice that we expect to come out of a woman from the South, or a black woman from the South, in particular. And neither did Elizabeth Cotten, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith. All of these women just had beautiful voices that were perfectly imperfect; they had a lot of emotion and a lot of character.
It makes me wonder if, in an era where so much old, “lost” music is being digitally preserved and then rediscovered and used as inspiration by contemporary artists, can we really lament the obscurity of artists like Sid Hemphill anymore? I mean, yes, he’s not heard widely enough. And no, he doesn’t maybe have much of a legacy at the moment. But what music he and his family recorded is available, just waiting for more people like June to discover it and see what they might make of it. So, who knows what kind of legacy Sid Hemphill might yet have?