Chords & Notes
Lightnin' Hopkins: The Very Best Of Lightnin' Hopkins
Rhino Records CD, Rs. 550
IN MANY parts of Africa, the birthplace of the blues, there is the tradition of a village songster/storyteller known as a "griot". In the absence of a written history, the griot is supposed to be a repository of the past, both in song and in epic lore. When it came time for him to bid adieu to this world, the griot would pass the baton on to an apprentice, and so on, down the generations.
Lightnin' Hopkins is one of the last griots of the extended African-American village. As he says in the liner notes: "Well, fact of the business is, I ain't no teacher. I came up rough, got no real learning. Got stories, man. Stories is all I got." From Lightnin's rapping, foot-tapping croon, backed up by his trusty acoustic guitar that stopped time and changed chords at odd places, one conjures up a composite picture of what a black man in the rural Old South had to grapple with as he survived into the next dawn.
He was born Samuel Hopkins in March 1912 into a Texas farming background in Centerville. He lost his father (also a musician) at the age of three, and the family moved to Leona, Texas, where he did a bit of church choir singing through his early childhood. At age eight, he fashioned a guitar out of a cigar box and chicken wire, and began teaching himself. His bluesman brother Joel Hopkins took notice, and a fraternal interest in his guitar education.
Dropping out of school, he hoboed all over Texas, working as a farmhand and picking up occasional tips by performing at bars, fish fries and picnics. During those post-Depression thirties, he performed with blues legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose blues chops he imbibed. He finally settled down in Houston's Third Ward ghetto after World War II.
In 1946, he joined pianist Wilson "Thunder" Smith (who features on the first track of this album , "Katie Mae Blues") and travelled to Los Angeles to record. His initial sides on the Alladin label brought local recognition in native Houston.
Shuttling between New York, Los Angeles and Houston, Lightnin' went on to record a mountain of material for nearly two dozen recording labels. Working on a "cash-down" basis, he lost out on songwriter's royalties that he could have collected with a bit more business savvy.
Country blues bottomed out in the Ffties, and after recording hundreds of sides through two decades, Lightnin' was back on the street side again, singing for pennies.
Like many country bluesmen, who lived into that era, he was "rediscovered" by the roots/folk revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and made appearances at folk festivals and college campuses, including one with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall in 1960.
An automobile accident in 1970 put paid to his touring, and his career over the last decade of his life slowed down. Crowning his six-decade blues odyssey with an appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1979, Sam Lightnin' Hopkins died two years later of cancer.
Lightnin' Hopkins's discography is staggering. The present Rhino compilation draws upon several sources, and the 16 selections cut a swath across his career from 1946 to the Sixties. Some are covers, like Joe Lee Williams's "Baby, Please Don't Go" (of which Muddy Waters did a famous version), and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Shotgun Blues". Then there is Lightnin's take on John Lee Hooker's "Moanin' Blues", with an uncannily accurate mimicking of the latter's percussive tremolo-laden guitar-picking style. "Penitentiary Blues" is the plaintive thump of an innocent man's fists against the stonewalls of a wrongful incarceration (a trauma he himself had experienced). On "Conversation Blues", he duets with a long time fellow traveller, the blind harmonica player Sonny Terry (offering him one of his eyes if that could help him see). The rest is original Lightnin', the latter day griot's storytelling at its best. Nobody does it quite like him.
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