Alan Lomax didn’t know what he was in for tearing down the dirt roads of the Mississippi Hill Country in 1942. He was looking for Sid Hemphill, a multi-instrumentalist he’d one day describe as “the best musician in the world.” When Lomax found him, the “boar-hog musician of the hills,” he was surprised to learn that the fiddle man and string band leader was blind. Not that it mattered. “His face blazed with inner light,” Lomax writes in his 1993 book, Land Where the Blues Began. “His speech, which could not keep pace with his thoughts and designs, had become telegraphic and brusque.”
Lomax’s initial recordings of Hemphill are collected on The Devil’s Dream: Alan Lomax’s 1942 Library of Congress Recordings, issued digitally by Global Jukebox Records and on vinyl by Mississippi Records. The recordings document Hemphill, accompanied by Alec Askew, Lucius Smith, and Will Head – mostly playing instruments Hemphill himself built – performing on August 15, 1942. The songs range from eerie to roaring: “The Devil’s Dream” pairs breathy bursts from the “quills,” or cane panpipes, with a steady martial snare roll, with Hemphill’s vocals sounding feverish and warped. “So Soon I’ll Be Home” is a mournful blues reading, and “The Sidewalks of New York” sounds like a battle cry. But mostly, the recordings sound like a party. “Come On Boys, Let’s Go to the Ball” stomps and “Hog Hunt” is gleeful, with Hemphill’s whoops and hollers imitating the song’s namesake pig. It’s no coincidence that the song is followed by the ribald “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” an ode to scrounging up something good.
In Land Where the Blues Began, Lomax states: “Finding this music still alive was the greatest surprise of all my collecting trips in America.” These recordings breathe fire; sounding fresh and vital despite the limitations imposed by Lomax’s crude recording techniques. In 2013, Hemphill’s music still sounds undeniably alive, a kicking, fitful blessing. words/ j. woodbury