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The Man Behind the Blues

Mysteries of Lightnin’ Hopkins

May. 24, 2010
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Like many blues singers of his time, Lightnin’ Hopkins started with a homemade guitar in the deep squalor of segregated Southern poverty, made his way to the big city, discovered amplification and became one of the rough-sawn bridges between the weird old America and rock’n’roll.

He was well known to black record buyers in the early 1950s, when he competed with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker on the Billboard R&B chart, and white audiences in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he worked the folk-blues revival circuit. But as Alan Govenar discovers in Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues (Chicago Review Press), the bluesman was as difficult to pin down as a running stream. Aside from providing the Blues Brothers with their sartorial model, the slouchy hat and dark glasses he always wore obscured his face and served as a symbol of his refusal to be looked in the eye. By the time Hopkins was “discovered” in the ‘60s by the amateur ethnomusicologists who wrote the earliest chronicles of the blues, he was well aware of the old journalist’s maxim: when in doubt, print the legend.

Govenar asserts that “remarkably little of his repertoire was truly autobiographical,” but given the sketchiness of Hopkins’ life, it’s hard to know for sure. Regardless of the folkloric stock of verses he plucked from the air and inserted into his songs, he identified with their themes, especially sexual conquest and emotional dejection and the dangerous knife’s edge walked by Southern blacks. Hopkins’ birth year was either 1911 or 1912, he used the word “wife” the way “girlfriend” is meant nowadays and called many men his “cousin” in a society where recordkeeping was often careless. Much like the street-cred seeking rappers of later years, he claimed he was stabbed and endured prison, but there is no evidence he ever served time.

What is certain is that music surrounded Hopkins as he grew up in Leon County, Texas, and that he saw his skill as a guitarist and entertainer as a way out of the backbreaking life of sharecropping and day labor. Hopkin’s raw music was a window onto the formation of the blues before the music was neatly trimmed into the 12-bar, three-line AAB verse form familiar today. His singing echoed the field hollers that gave birth to the blues; he held lines for extra beats and played guitar in long, irregular rhythms. He was a hard man for drummers and bassists to accompany.

Hopkins told colorful stories of his early days on the streets of Houston and his discovery by indie labels. The distrustful singer disdained exclusive recording contracts and the promise of royalties and recorded on a cash and carry basis. Nevertheless be was among the most prolific of blues recording artists. As Govenar mentions with little surprise, his discography is almost as difficult to sort out as his life.

Govenar, whose previous books include Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound and Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, has done exhaustive research into his slippery subject. More than a dry recitation of the facts and legends he uncovered, Govenar presents the context of Hopkins’ life as a star within his own community and a willfully romanticized figure for the white blues revival of the ‘60s.


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