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In the album's liner notes, "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy" is credited as "Traditional, by Jessie Mae Hemphill, arranged by Chan Marshall, Public Domain."
Olga Wilhelmine Mathus, a San Francisco–based blues musician and founder of the Jessie Mae Hemphill Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the northern Mississippi hill country blues tradition — says the song isn't in the public domain and that Hemphill owns the copyright. Mathus believes Marshall owes royalties to the late singer's estate.
"The money from that song should go to Jessie's estate and be divided up among her relatives, who, much like Jessie, are poor, elderly black people, many of whom are living off welfare," Mathus said. "This isn't anything new. It's unfortunate that most of the originators of blues music died in poverty because of situations similar to this."
Hemphill, a W.C. Handy Award–winning electric guitarist, songwriter, and singer, was born in Senatobia, Mississippi, in 1923. She spent decades playing on Beale Street in Memphis before releasing two albums in the 1980s and '90s. In 1993, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side, leaving her unable to play guitar for the remaining 13 years of her life.
Some might dismiss Mathus' fervor for Hemphill's cause as sadness over the loss of a close friend and musical mentor, but it takes only a couple minutes of Internet searching to discover that "Lord Help the Poor and Needy" is indeed copyrighted to Jessie Mae Hemphill with Broadcast Music, Inc. and the United States Copyright Office.
When asked about the disputed credit on April 1, Matador Records cofounder Chris Lombardi seemed ready for the question. "We made a mistake and credited it incorrectly on the album," he said. "It's actually a Jessie Mae Hemphill song. I think we thought it was a traditional song and had not yet been registered, but her representatives contacted us recently and we're setting up the mechanical royalties now."
Dr. David Evans, a professor at the University of Memphis and Hemphill's publisher, said he wrote to Matador on March 25* informing them of the omission in Jukebox. Lombardi said he was aware of the letter and insisted the label had been in touch with Evans. But just twelve hours earlier, Evans told SF Weekly he hadn't heard from Matador. When SF Weekly pointed out this discrepancy to Lombardi, he paused awkwardly. "Really?" he responded after a few moments. "Well, that's weird."
Shortly after the Weekly interviewed Lombardi for this article, Matador contacted Evans and Mathus, Evans confirms.
Evans, a specialist in African-American folk music, has produced more than 30 albums of field and studio recordings for the university's High Water Records label and is often credited with exposing Hemphill to wider audiences. "I started producing recordings of Jessie Mae in 1978, and two versions of those recordings have been licensed, one to Hi Tone Records and one to Inside Sounds," Evans explains. "Evidently, Cat Power heard one of these two recordings, as she makes mention of Jessie in the notes of her new album."
Even with the paper trails in place, Evans acknowledges that the very nature of early African-American folk music makes it difficult to ascertain its true composers. With the conflux of folk spirituals, field hollers, African tribal music, and gospel songs in the Mississippi hill country serving as the birthplace of the blues, many artists of Hemphill's era often borrowed a verse, chorus, or melody from a traditional song as a jumping-off point for their own material.
"American copyright laws go under the assumption that a work is wholly original in words and melody, or it uses words and melodies from another source that's either under copyright or in the public domain," Evans says. "But it's not that simple with some African-American musical traditions."
Nonetheless, Evans says other artists — singer-songwriters Mark Tolstrup and Kate Campbell — who have covered "Lord Help the Poor and Needy" knew enough about the song's origins to ask Hemphill's permission before recording it.
Even as Matador works to resolve the missing credit, the dispute raises an interesting question: Is the simple payment of publishing royalties enough recompense for copyright infringement? In 1985, blues legend Willie Dixon successfully sued and won credit and royalties from Led Zeppelin after alleging that their 1969 hit "Whole Lotta Love" was appropriated, without credit, from his "You Gotta Be Loved."
So what is ample restitution for infringing on an artist's copyrighted work? Mathus believes money is a good start, but hopes the attention Cat Power's music receives could ignite a spark of interest in Hemphill and her fellow musicians. "I think it's good that someone of Cat Power's visibility covers a song like this, as it makes it more accessible for the more mainstream audience," she says. "A lot of folks were turned on to R.L. Burnside after Jon Spencer came out with a record on him, so perhaps this will turn more people on to Jessie's music, the music of the north Mississippi hill country, and the life and struggles of many of these artists."
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article did not include the March 25 date when Evans first contacted Matador.
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