Sid Hemphill: The Devil’s Dream (1942) 2013
subtitled: Alan Lomax’s 1942 Library of Congress Recordings
01. The Devil’s Dream
02. The Eighth Of January
03. Hog Hunt
04. Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy
05. The Carrier Line (Carrie Song)
06. Soon In The Morning
07. Leather Britches
08. Arkansas Traveler
09. Come On Boys, Let Go To The Ball
10. John Henry
11. Jesse James
12. Sidewalks Of New York
13. Rye Straw
14. Boll Weevil
15. So Soon I’ll Be At Home
Sid Hemphill – vocals, fiddle, quills [pan-pipe] (#3), snare drum;
Lucius Smith – banjo;
Alec ‘Turpentine’ Askew – guitar, quills [pan-pipe] (#9), vocals (#9);
Will Head – bass drum, snare drum
Recorded: near Sledge, Mississippi; August 15, 1942.
Released: Feb 26, 2013
Label: Global Jukebox
Recorded by: Alan Lomax
[Quills info: sohl.com/Quills/Quills.htm ]
In “The Land Where the Blues Began”, the folklorist Alan Lomax recalls his epic field-recording voyage through the Mississippi Delta in the early 40s, undertaken at a time when, for Lomax, the stakes felt particularly high.
“I knew this was to be my last song-collecting jaunt before the Army got me, maybe the last time I would ever hear the alley blues and the hallelujah spirituals that I believe are the best art our country has produced,” he wrote, and not without discernible yearning.
That urgency would eventually yield the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards, and the first recordings of Son House since his Paramount days, but it’s hard not to feel like Lomax’s desperation– for ferocity, inventiveness, some kind of rapture– was probably best assuaged by his discovery of Sid Hemphill, the so-called “boar-hog musician of the hills,” a fiddler and string band-leader once described to Lomax as “the best musician in the world.”
Lomax found Hemphill in Senatobia, deep in Mississippi’s Hill Country.
He’d driven across a crumbling bridge and approached a “sagging, unpainted door on a weathered-gray, warping house.”
Before he could knock, Hemphill, then 65, swung it open.
“No one had told me that Sid Hemphill was blind, but it was the last thing you’d recall about him,” Lomax explained.
“His face blazed with inner light.”
On August 15, 1942, Lomax committed 15 tracks by Hemphill and his backing band (Lucius Smith, Alec “Turpentine” Askew, and Will Head) to acetate disc.
Hemphill never recorded commercially, and only Lomax’s field recordings of his work are extant– meaning that unless you knew a guy (shoddy cassette tapes of Hemphill’s songs, sourced from Lomax’s discs, have been spotted in the damp palms of 78 collectors for decades, passed about like contraband), The Devil’s Dream is the first time anyone has been properly able to access or disseminate Hemphill’s brain-scrambling yawp.
The album’s release this month, over 70 years after its creation– as a download through the Alan Lomax Archive’s Global Jukebox imprint, or on LP via Mississippi Records– feels both long overdue and right on time.
Hemphill’s masterwork is “The Carrier Line”, a rambling, six-minute blues ballad about the owner of a local logging railroad and the engineer who ran his train too fast.
“You want me to put the whole 21 verses in it?” Hemphill asks Lomax before raising his fiddle and announcing himself.
“Sid Hemphill! “Carrier Song” was made and played by him, his band!”
There is a wildness to Hemphill’s voice and playing that feels undeniable if not fully singular– every note is vehement, as if it were stampeded into being, as if it might trample you, too, if you don’t start running.
Those propulsive, impatient rhythms make “The Carrier Line” feel literal, like an actual train is hurtling towards Hemphill and his band, only Hemphill is too fearless, too punk rock, to flee or even flinch.
Elsewhere, Hemphill’s giddiness at playing and being recorded is evident in his voice, and in the half-intelligible yarns he appears to find deeply hilarious.
(“Arkansas Traveler” concerns a kid digging a hole and yellow corn and we-don’t-need-no-supper-in-Arkansas; the punch-line is Hemphill shouting “I know a place!” and it’s always funny, for reasons that remain unclear to me, but don’t much matter.)
“Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” is a raunchy, shambling ode to unflappable libido, and it features a heartbreaking (and unexpected) exchange between two of Hemphill’s backers, one of whom is so out of tune he temporarily stops playing (“You must be scared?” a voice asks. There’s a pause. “You must be scared.”)
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.
The title-track, which features vocals, a bass drum, and quills (a handmade instrument crafted from cane reeds that sounds a little like a panpipe, only flatter and more rudimentary) is a battle cry; Hemphill whoops and wheezes like a feral child lost in a shopping mall.
It’s hard to imagine a more fundamentally exhilarating three minutes of music.
There are plenty of reasons to lament Hemphill’s relative obscurity, and his subsequent lack of a professional oeuvre: The exuberance of his performance that day (and it is a performance, rendered heartily and with intention) can sometimes obscure his extraordinary acumen as a songwriter, and there are all the expected fidelity issues (Hemphill and his band are often positioned in awkward proximity to the microphone, and are prone to vaguely acrimonious mid-song chit-chat).
The songs themselves contain a preposterous numbers of verses, and aren’t short on impious bits.
But then there’s Hemphill, capable of the sorts of noises only generated in extraordinarily compromised positions, of reflecting our most unruly, un-tempered, subsumed exaltations– and even then, they don’t ever sound this ecstatic.
Or this free.