Tuesday, 6 October 2009


It seems slightly dimwitted of me to open a blues related post with the words I woke up this morning, so I have put them mid sentence. I did wake up this morning with some vague memory of seeing a fife and drum band on some distant blues documentary. Reading about Jessie Mae Hemphill recently may well have planted the seed there, as I think she also worked with a fife and drum outfit. Her father, Sid Hemphill, was one of the many artists recorded by Alan Lomax on his travels for the Library of Congress. The first I heard of her was on the Black Snake Moan soundtrack, where she appears with Standing in the Doorway Crying. Samuel Jackson does a snarlingly righteous version of Stack-o-lee, and considering everyone from Mississipi John Hurt in 1928 all the way through to The Clash and beyond have done it, it's a fine rendition.

But, I have wandered from my point. Ah yes, the fife and drums. But before the fife and drums, here's a great little film of being 'On the Road with Jessie Mae Hemphill'. She's one of those artists you can trace all the way back to Beale Street.

'We got both kindsa music, county and western' says someone in a some film, well, we got both the fife and the drums now. Whether or not it brought the genre to a wider audience is hard to say, but blues-loving Martin Scorsese put Othar Turner and The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the soundtrack to his Gangs of New York movie (come to think of it it was probably one of his blues documantaries where I first saw this kind of music). If you're still wonderin' what the hell a fife is it's a recorder type instrument. Fife and drum music goes way back to the slaves in America and if you sit and listen to, say, someone like John Lee Hooker, with his foot stamping out time, and the melody on the guitar, you will hear elements of it clearly. If you have a fast enough connection you can watch an amazing bit of 1971 film on Othar Turner here.

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