If you don’t know anything about Hamper, you might start by learning that he had for some years been recognized as one of the better singers of unaccompanied songs and ballads. Though Hamper is a genuine mountain man, he has been known to a couple of generations of students and teachers at the University of the South at nearby Sewanee, and to the people at the old Highlander Folk School near his home in Monteagle. He has toured with the Southern Folk Festival, and in 1964 he recorded a now-out-of-print album with Guy Carawan. More recently, he has been written up by the Associated Press, and is the subject of Raw Mash, a 30-minute television documentary by Sol Korine and Blaine Dunlap.
Hamper was born in 1931, in Emory Gap in Roane County, Tennessee, but moved to Sewanee when he was a small boy. His father was a state highway inspector who supplemented his income by searching the mountains for herbs and roots. Hamper himself did this for a time after he quit school – he sold Black Haw bark for 65 cents a pound – and then in 1950 joined the army, doing a hitch in Korea and Germany. “After that I started in to making whiskey,” Hamper recalls. “And I stayed drunk a lot of the time. I did all sorts of jobs: construction, timber cutting, mule driving, working in taverns. Spent some time working for three or four carnivals.” All the jobs usually lead back to Monteagle, though, and it’s there that Hamper lives today, in a trailer set back in the woods a few hundred feet from I-24. In spite of all this, there’s no way you can pigeon-hole Hamper into a typical mountain stereotype, either as a person or a singer. He can be wild and boisterous, or introspective and moody; you can find him swapping stories down at the local tavern, or home systematically reading his way through an encyclopedia.
While he has learned a number of his songs from traditional sources, he’s very much aware of the folk revival movement, and doesn’t hesitate to pick up a song from a record or a songbook if it fits his style. One of his favorite singers is Bradley Kincaid; Hamper remembers hearing Bradley on the radio, on records, and traveling miles to hear him in person. Another favorite is Almeda Riddle, whom Hamper feels is about the best unaccompanied singer performing today. Other interests range from Woody Guthrie to Burl Ives to Vernon Dalhart. You won’t find that Hamper is a source for too many rare or obscure ballads (though he on occasion composes fine songs in traditional modes, such as “Jasper Jail” and “Wauhatchie Yards”); you will find that Hamper is a supreme stylist, with a rich, authentic, expressive voice that has mellowed with the years. It’s a voice that has what one listener has called “mountain soul.” Back in the 1850s a Tennessee writer named George Washington Harris created an immortal backwoods character named Sut Lovingood. Sut liked drinking, dancing, singing, yarn-spinning, and loving; he hated preachers, hypocrites in any form, sheriffs, and middle-class bankers. There’s a lot of Sut Lovingood surviving in Hamper McBee, and by listening to him on this album, you can get a sample of the spirit that keeps the old songs and old tales alive.
– Charles Wolfe, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 1978
Burial – Monteagle, Marion County, Tennessee, USA