Sid Hemphill

Sid Hemphill - Senatobia

Sid Hemphill (1878-1961) was the most storied African-American musician in the Mississippi hills in the early decades of the 20th century, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, bandleader and instrument maker whose music largely predated the traditional blues form. He was the first to record Mississippi fife and drum music in 1942. The patriarch of a talented musical family, Hemphill passed his legacy on most memorably to his granddaughter Jessie Mae Hemphill, a world-renowned blues performer.

Sid Hemphill occupies a unique place in Mississippi music history. The recording of black fife and drum bands began with Hemphill (“the blind musical maestro,” as folklorist Alan Lomax described him) and other regional traditions virtually ended with him, including the creation of blues ballads and the making and playing of quills (panpipes fashioned from native bamboo cane).

Hemphill, born in Panola County on September 13, 1878, according to state records, or 1876 by his own statements to Lomax, played fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, drums, fife, quills and organ. When Lomax and Lewis Jones recorded him for a Library of Congress/Fisk University project in 1942, Hemphill had sacks of homemade instruments hanging in his shed. Hemphill learned fiddle from his father, former slave Dock Hemphill, who in turn learned from a cousin in Choctaw County. His repertoire encompassed reels, waltzes, popular tunes, marches, church songs, and ballads.

When Hemphill recorded at a picnic near Sledge on August 15, 1942, he led a band of musicians who were all of his generation: Lucius Smith on banjo, Alec Askew on guitar and other instruments, and Will Head on drums. Their turn-of-the century music was archaic even then. Hemphill said he wrote ballads by request. A wreck on the Sardis & Delta Railroad owned by Sardis lumber baron Robert Carrier inspired the “The Carrier Railroad.” “The Roguish Man” was written for Jack Castle, a local African American who wanted his criminal exploits publicized. “The Strayhorn Mob” told of a masked mob that stormed the Senatobia jail intending to lynch a prisoner in 1905, but wound up on trial themselves for killing Sheriff J.M. Poag, according to newspaper reports.

Hemphill’s 1942 recordings remained unissued until folklorist and musicologist David Evans compiled a few songs on albums for Testament Records and the Library of Congress in the 1970s. In the meantime, Lomax returned to Mississippi to record Hemphill and Lucius Smith again in 1959, along with Hemphill’s daughters Rosa Lee Hill and Sidney (Sydney) Lee Carter, the fife and drum band of Ed and Lonnie Young, Fred McDowell, and Miles and Bob Pratcher in 1959. Various songs, including some of Hemphill’s, were released in 1960 by Atlantic Records and later by other labels.

In 1942 blind street singer Turner Junior Johnson first told Lomax about Sid Hemphill, “my best musician in the world.” Lucius Smith uttered similar praise in 1978: “He was a music man. Then he learnt all of us . . . Good as ever been through here, Panola County.” Hemphill was a resident of Tate County when he died in Holly Springs on October 20, 1961. He was buried in Senatobia.

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