One of the blues most iconic artists, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, is the subject of a welcome new biography, “Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues” (Chicago Review Press), by writer and photographer Alan Govenar. Govenar has written a number of books including “Texas Blues : The Rise of a Contemporary Sound,” as well as a musical “Blind Lemon Blues,” that has been performed Off-Broadway.
Hopkins was celebrated during his life for his ability to spin songs seemingly out of the blue, for his sometimes acerbic commentary on people, the relationships between men and women and current events, while performing for two very different audiences, the urban working class folk that bought his commercial recordings and frequented the bars in Houston’s black community and the white audience that was first introduced to his music during the folk revival and later when he became one of the most respected performers on the blues circuit from the sixties through his death in 1982.
Hopkins was born in rural Centreville, Texas. At the time Texas was pretty racist, with lynchings happening far too frequently. In this world, life was rough and hard and often violent. Hopkins’ dad was shot to death over a card game when he was three. Shortly thereafter his oldest brother, John henry left because he would have killed the man who shot their dad. He grew up in a world of country suppers and square dances, and had to share in the farm work. he learned to play guitar as well as dance as a youngest and this enabled him to give up the hard life of farm work. Relying on interviews of those who knew the young Hopkins, as well as Hopkins’ own recollections (some were issued on one of the many recordings he made), Govenar shows the develop of the young artist who would spend time with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander. Alexander was a particularly important person for Hopkins and their travels together would be reflected in some of his repertoire.
Hopkins would settle into Houston whose Black Community had a varied night life ranging from the upscale El Dorado Ballroom Club to neighborhood bars for the working and country folks. It was the later venues that Lightnin’ would play at. To middle and upper-level residents of the Third Ward, he was likely invisible. Then he was discovered by Lola Cullum, who had discovered Amos Milburn and had taken the pianist out to California where he recorded for Aladdin Records in 1946. As a follow-up to Milburn’s success she brought Hopkins and pianist Wilson “Thunder’ Smith to record. While Hopkins played on Smith’s “Rocky Mountain Blues,”, Hopkins on acoustic guitar, SMith on piano and a drummer, he recorded “Katie Mae Blues,” and “Mean Old Twister.” It was at the session that Cullum nicknamed Hopkins Lightnin’. These recordings would start one of the most prolific recording careers in blues history and were unusual in the use of acoustic guitar, since Hopkins played electric on nearly every recording he made until he recorded during the folk revival when some producers insisted (based on some false notion of authenticity), that he play acoustic. Not all did so, as Chris Strachwitz who started Arhoolie Records in part because of Hopkins. Strachwitz had been a fan of Hopkins juke box recordings and would record Hopkins using electric guitar for the recordings that would be issued on Arhoolie as well as some he made for other labels such as Poppy (later reissued on Tomato).
Govenar tracks Hopkins’ recordings after his initial Aladdin sides, through he recordings at Bill Quinn’s studio for Gold Star and other labels, Bobby Shad, the Herald label and then Mack McCormick who was first to record Hopkins for the folk music market, followed by Samuel Charters, Strachwitz and others. Hopkins, like his contemporary John Lee Hooker, was one who would record for any label willing to pay him, and he insisted in being paid in cash which may relate to Hopkins having minimal education and essentially being illiterate as well as a general mistrust of whites. So he would insist on cash payments, and eschew royalties. Then he would complain he was underpaid by the record company, while asserting he received substantial cash payments.
Govenar traces Hopkins’ career as a recording artist and performing artist, noting the changing nature of those who booked and managed him. Mixed in are accounts of his performances including recollections of those who saw his performances and his differing persona for his two different audiences, who related to his music in fundamentally different fashions. The interaction between Lightnin’ and those watching him at the Third War neighborhood bars was far different from the restrained, but attentive white audiences that proved to much more financially lucrative. While Hopkins had a guarded personality, he does flesh out some of his personality as well as provides a cogent discussion of Lightnin’s songs and music, ranging from his ability to spin songs out of current events to his development of “Mr. Charlie,” which with his spoken introduction, became a staple of his performance.
“Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues” is a celebration of Hopkins’ life and music. There are a couple of minor factual errors. There is a reference to a performance at Toronto’s New Yorker Theatre which John Hammond opened as being in 1978, but unless this was a repeat booking, I am certain this show was in 1977 because I was living in Buffalo and went with my friend Paul to catch this show, one of the two chances I had to see him perform. In 1978 I was living in the New York area, and did not return to Toronto until 1984. Also Terry Dunn, the owner of Tramps, was remembered as a Texan but in fact was an Irish immigrant whose origins would be hard to miss. Still these are minor errors and do not detract from the invaluable biography Govenar has provided us.
In addition to extensive endnotes and a selected bibliography, Andrew Brown and Alan Balfour have contributed a fifty page discography of Hopkins extensive recording career which includes much new information including correcting the identity of the steel guitarist who recorded with Hopkins in 1949 for Gold Star. It was Hop Wilson, not Frankie Lee Sims as long suggested, who can be heard on “Jail House Blues,” and “‘T’ Model Blues.” In addition to Govenar’s narrative, this discography ensures that this will be the standard reference on Hopkins for years to come. In summary, this is an invaluable addition to the blues literature.
This was received as a review copy from publisher.