Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

“Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues” by Alan Govenar (Chicago Review Press)

Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins (1912-1982) has been dead for 28 years, but remains an iconic figure among blues fans, including many who were not yet alive during his lifetime. To many people, Hopkins represents post-WW2 down-home blues at its purest level of authenticity, even when played on his instrument of choice, the electric guitar.

But how much do blues fans really know about Lightnin’ Hopkins, and exactly how far removed was he from the “taint” of show business, or the modernization of urban influences? Part of the reason we think of Hopkins as a bastion of rural Texas blues values is the mythology which has grown up around him. As Alan Govenar, a greatly respected chronicler of the Texas roots-music scene, makes clear in this first-ever full-length biography of the man from Centerville, Lightnin’ Hopkins in large measure created and disseminated his own myth.

To be sure, this hardly makes Sam Hopkins unique among bluesmen of any period. Not many blues artists from earlier eras have left us autobiographies in which they explain themselves and their art, though many have been interviewed and documented by collectors and historians. But even autobiographies cannot be relied upon; Big Bill Broonzy comes to mind in this regard. Many interviewees have been known to answer straightforward, fact-seeking questions with colorful tall tales, relating “experiences” which they think people would like to hear, or which they feel would fit the interviewers’ preconceived notions. Not enough documentation was done during the early, pre-war era of the blues, making it difficult for authors to check for accuracy or multiple views of the same events.

Lightnin’ Hopkins may have come from a slightly later era, when one would have hoped hard documentation would have replaced the gushing admiration of colorful stories. But even so, he first came to the fore when white blues collectors still had not yet done crucial research, and were all too ready to make suppositions based on insufficient knowledge mixed with stereotypes. Thus, Hopkins was able to get away with painting ever-changing word portraits of his life. Couple this with the fact that little documentation was done of African-American music (and life in general) during Hopkins’ younger years in rural Texas, and you have mythmaking opportunities galore. Alan Govenar makes a valiant effort to separate fact from fiction, to make sense of the contradictions, to follow the complex arc of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ life and career, to fill in as many gaps in the record as he can. Holes remain, and most likely always will. Nevertheless, this book strikes me as a fair, unbiased, and believable, providing unprecedented insight into the life and music of an enigmatic, self-made mystery man.

Not surprisingly, the weakest part of the book is the section dealing with Hopkins’ younger, rural years. Govenar has interviewed a few relatives and childhood friends, but by and large the trail has gone cold, particularly since Lightnin’ claimed to have left home to become a traveling musician at age 8. (He subsequently had very little schooling and remained functionally illiterate his entire life.) We find him receiving encouragement from Blind Lemon Jefferson, followed by a stint accompanying singer Texas Alexander in the years after the latter’s period of relative recording stardom. But Hopkins really emerges musically in the big city, Houston, where he spent most of his adult life. He originally performed for strictly segregated black audiences, and indeed had several Top 10 hits on the r&b charts in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. He continued thereafter to present himself differently to black ghetto audiences, with whom he felt comfortable and could identify, than with the white audiences who came to dominate the last 20-plus years of life. Govenar suggests that experiences with record companies, folklorists (including the influential Mack McCormick, who is portrayed in a most unflattering light), bookers, etc. led Hopkins to mistrust most of the white people he came into contact with. (Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz was a refreshing exception.) The combination of lack of education and mistrust led him to demand payment-in-full for every song he recorded as soon as he finished recording it, either refusing to sign contracts which could potentially have brought in considerable, much-needed royalties, or to ignore without a second thought those contracts he did sign.

Hopkins was a bristly fellow, one who enjoyed his alcohol rather too much, who gambled away what little money he earned from his music, who had a very violent streak, and a very highly developed ego. He spent (by his own reckoning) a dozen or more stretches in jail for assault and related charges. But with the right people, he could be a bosom friend and companion, in particular with the woman he called his “wife”, who actually had a legal husband and children with whom she continued to live at night while spending her days with Hopkins. His dislike of travel early in his career, followed by a virtually disabling fear of flying once he realized that he could make far more money on the road than in the bars of Houston’s Third Ward, held back his career. But his distinctive recording style and highly mannered give-the-audience-what-they-want live performances eventually made him prosperous well beyond his expectations. Govenar follows these developments in an easy-to-read, yet highly detailed manner. In particular, there is much detailed information about most of Hopkins’ recording sessions, beginning in 1946 as half of the recording duo of Thunder and Lightnin’ (with pianist Wilson Smith; it was this nom-de-disque, supplied by a record company, which resulted in Sam Hopkins becoming known as “Lightnin’).

Govenar’s portrayal is eventually a sympathetic one. Despite Hopkins’ difficulties as a person, his music and artistry far transcend his personality and defy easy analysis. I rather wish Govenar had spent more time discussing which portions of Hopkins’ improvised lyrics were indeed spontaneously generated and which were built from traditional, floating-verse sources. But this is a biography, after all, neither a musicological tome nor a study in poetics.

Because he recorded for so many labels and was subject to so many reissues and repackagings, Hopkins’ discography provides special challenges for researchers. However, Govenar includes a list of Lightnin’s sessions, complied by Andrew Brown and Alan Balfour, that is probably as complete as one can get. A full discog, listing all reissues, remains for another day.

In all, this is a very successful and satisfying book, which will appeal greatly to blues fans, and could reach a wider audience a

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