Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #9: Lightnin' Hopkins

Most of the musicians I've been featuring in this series have been from Mississippi, with one trip out East; this time let's go in the other direction, and check out the great Texan bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins:

Sam Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, and seemed destined for a life as a musician. He came from a musical family: His brothers both played, and his older cousin Alger "Texas" Alexander, one of the major figures in early Texas blues, was one of Hopkins' important partners in the first part of his career. At age 8, Hopkins also formed a significant bond with another great Texas guitarist, Blind Lemon Jefferson, when he met him at a party. Eventually, Hopkins became Jefferson's guide, and the older man became his mentor. (Here's a short clip of Hopkins talking about his days with Jefferson. Hopkins spent most of the 1920s and 1930s playing around Texas with Alexander, but it wasn't until a talent scout saw him in Houston in 1946 that Lightnin', literally, struck. He went out to Los Angeles and started what would become the most prolific recording career of any blues musician, with more albums to his name than anyone. It was out in L.A. that he was handed his nickname, an idea by one of Aladdin Records' executives to help jazz up a short-lived pairing with pianist Wilson "Thunder" Smith. The partnership didn't last, but "Lightnin'" was too good not to keep.

Undoubtedly one reason he could record so often is that he also wrote constantly, and was able to do that because his songs generally followed the same basic template of languid, gloomy riffs over which he could unspool whatever was on his mind at the time. That's not at all to say Hopkins was formulaic—within the boundaries he worked in he was endlessly creative, and he worked that way comfortably his whole life (and certainly I haven't gotten tired of listening to it yet after a decade or so). He held onto that style so strongly that the younger, white rockers he recorded with a lot during the 1960s often found it difficult to adapt to his approach, which was more suited to a lone man than a band. It also made him immune to fashion, both positively and negatively: He got left behind when rock swept in during the 1950s, but was practiced and ready to go when the next decade revived his genre.

There's a huge amount of Hopkins video floating around the Internet, and I doubt I've caught even half of it. Still, here's a few particularly good performances:

Here he plays "Hurricane Beulah" and "Baby, Scratch My Back," from the the DVD Lightnin' Hopkins: Rare Performances 1960-1979.

Apparently from the same session unless he really liked that particular outfit, here's "Mojo Hand" and "Take Me Back":

Here's "Goin' Down Slow," most famous in Howlin' Wolf's version but done just fine here:

Dig his groovy hat in this performance of "Questionnaire Blues":

Here's a couple of songs from his last concert in Holland:

There's plenty more, but seven videos seems like a good place to stop. Maybe we'll do a Part II down the road.


#1: Sister Rosetta

#2: Skip James

#3: Bukka White

#4: Howlin' Wolf

#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)

#7: Furry Lewis

#8: Son House


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