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Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues

Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues

by Alan Govenar

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Based on scores of interviews with the artist’s relatives, friends, lovers, producers, accompanists, managers, and fans, this brilliant biography reveals a man of many layers and contradictions. Following the journey of a musician who left his family's poor cotton farm at age eight carrying only a guitar, the book chronicles his life on the open road playing blues music and doing odd jobs. It debunks the myths surrounding his meetings with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander, his time on a chain gang, his relationships with women, and his lifelong appetite for gambling and drinking. This volume also discusses his hard-to-read personality; whether playing for black audiences in Houston’s Third Ward, for white crowds at the Matrix in San Francisco, or in the concert halls of Europe, Sam Hopkins was a musician who poured out his feelings in his songs and knew how to endear himself to his audience—yet it was hard to tell if he was truly sincere, and he appeared to trust no one. Finally, this book moves beyond exploring his personal life and details his entire musical career, from his first recording session in 1946—when he was dubbed Lightnin’—to his appearance on the national charts and his rediscovery by Mack McCormick and Sam Charters in 1959, when his popularity had begun to wane and a second career emerged, playing to white audiences rather than black ones. Overall, this narrative tells the story of an important blues musician who became immensely successful by singing with a searing emotive power about his country roots and the injustices that informed the civil rights era.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569766200
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Alan Govenar is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. He is the author of numerous books, including Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound; Extraordinary Ordinary People: Five American Masters of Traditional Arts; Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller; Untold Glory: African Americans in Pursuit of Freedom, Opportunity and Achievement; and Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter. The off-Broadway premiere of his musical Blind Lemon Blues, cocreated with Akin Babatunde, received rave reviews in the New York Times and Variety.

Read an Excerpt

Lightnin' Hopkins

His Life and Blues

By Alan Govenar

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2010 Alan Govenar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-620-0


Early Years

Leaving Centerville on Leon County Road 113, midway between Dallas and Houston, the landscape of Sam Hopkins's early years comes into view. Patches of mesquite interspersed with red bud trees and groves of hickory, elm, and oak spread through the rolling hills and grassy plains. The ranches are small, and longhorns graze in pastures abutting subsistence farms, which yield to rockier soil that is parched and cracked, even in the cool January sun. The road is still unpaved, and loose gravel rattles against the wheel rims as we near Warren's Bottom, where Hopkins was born.

"Yes sir, the closer you get to the Trinity River, the terrain is rough. This was sharecropper land," Ray Dawkins explains. In his denim overalls and flannel shirt, Dawkins emanates a bygone era. For a man of eighty, he has few wrinkles and still seems physically active. He drives a pickup truck and lives in a small apartment in town.

Between 1870 and 1960, 40 percent of the residents of Leon County were African American, but by 1980, the percentage dropped to 20 percent, and in 1990 to 12.8 percent. Dawkins says it's difficult keeping young people in town. There are more job opportunities in Dallas and Houston, and the population of Centerville has continued to decline, from 961 in 1950 to 903 in 2000.

"Back when Sam was a boy," Dawkins remembers, "black folks didn't have opportunities. You did what you had to, that is, to get by."

Little is known about the details of Sam's early years. Even his birth date is disputed. In his Social Security application, dated January 24, 1940, Sam stated that he was born on March 15, 1912, a date that he reiterated in his song "Going Home Blues (Going Back and Talk to Mama)," as well as in numerous interviews over the course of his life. However, the Social Security Death Index lists his birth date as March 15, 1911, and his death certificate says it was March 12, 1912. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Texas Birth Index recorded the birth of a Sam Hopkins on March 15, 1911, in Hopkins County, which is in northeast Texas, nowhere near Leon County. It's possible that this was a clerical error, but it may also be a coincidence that another man named Sam Hopkins was born on that day. It's difficult to say which date is actually correct; no birth certificate has ever been found. Still, by all accounts, Sam spent the first years of his life in Warren's Bottom. Today all the sharecropper shacks are gone, and a chain link fence with a NO TRESPASSING sign posted on its gate blocks our way.

Outside the car, the dust subsides. The land appears relatively fertile, but clearly Warren's Bottom was in the flood plain, and much of the loamy topsoil has been washed away. Historically there were more small subsistence farms in Leon County raising vegetables, hogs, and cattle than large plantations, but once the cotton culture took hold, the number of slaves grew rapidly from 621 in 1850 to 1,455 in 1855. "Slave property was the most important possession of the majority of Leon County citizens," Frances Jane Leathers wrote in Through the Years: A Historical Sketch of Leon County (1946). In 1855, slaves had "a value of $757,296, which was $300,000 more than the assessed value of all the taxable land in the county."

During the Civil War, this area of Central Texas was a stronghold of the Confederacy, and local historian W. D. Wood wrote in 1899 that "Leon County furnished 600 soldiers for the Confederate armies. ... The fact is that everybody in Leon County, men and women, were doing their best in some way, to hold up the hands of the soldier, and sustain the Confederate cause. Even the slave at home, not only nobly protected the family of his soldier master, but was industriously engaged in making meat and bread for the soldier on the firing line."

Emancipation brought promise and hope, but the advances of Reconstruction were short-lived. Racism was rampant. J. Y. Gates and H. B. Fox wrote in A History of Leon County(1936) that a "lynching occurred in Reconstruction days when a negro was hanged on the tree [called "The Tree of Justice"] and allowed to swing two nights and a full day. Old timers can recall how the negro, swollen from long hanging, 'bounced when he hit the ground,' when he finally was cut down." In 1910 the New York Times reported that Frank Bates was "lynched by hanging in the jail at Centerville" after trying to escape his jail cell where he was awaiting trial on a murder charge. In 1915, according to G. R. Englelow, writing in a Centerville newspaper called the Record, another man, suspected of murder, was tracked down and arrested without resistance, but the next day he was found with a noose around his neck, hanging from the limb of a large oak tree in the square in front of the Leon County courthouse. In 1919 a black preacher was hung for reputedly killing a white farmer after delivering "a sermon Sunday night. ... The two had an argument the previous Saturday over cotton. A posse sought the Negro a week along the bottom lands ... before he was found and brought to jail. When the sheriff was out of town, a mob made a key and opened the jail and hanged the Negro to the tree."

In this climate of racially motivated violence, the Hopkins family, like the others in their community, kept to themselves and worked their little parcel of land on shares, forced to pay the landowner one-third or one-half of the crop each year. But the rocky soil in Warren's Bottom was tough to farm, and they could barely eke out a living growing cotton, peanuts, corn, and peas.

Sam said that his grandfather was a slave who hung himself because he was "tired of being punished." But Sam didn't seem to know much more about his grandfather, or his other grandparents, though he did talk about his parents, Abe and Frances Hopkins. Abe was born in 1873 in Leon County and was working as a sharecropper when he met 15-year-old Frances Washington around 1900. They married, and Frances gave birth to their first son, John Henry, in 1901. According to the 1910 census (taken before Sam was born), Frances and Abe had four children: John Henry (age eight), Joel (age seven), Abe Jr. (age four), and Alice (age two). None of the Hopkins family was able to read or write.

Sam called his father "a rough man" who "peoples didn't like. ... He'd fight right smart. ... He killed a man. So, he went to the penitentiary, and he come back and married my mother, and from then on he started this family." Clyde Langford, a distant cousin of the Hopkins family, grew up across FM 1119 from Sam's mother. He says that she spoke fondly of her husband. She described him as a "tall, slender fella with a heavy voice," who intimidated those who didn't know him but who was "a man who wouldn't hurt anyone."

Frances Hopkins, Langford recalls, "was a little old skinny woman" who was "real fiery, frisky" though she didn't say much. He met her when he was a boy of about ten or eleven. "My daddy would take me by her house," Langford says, "and she talked to me. She kept a smile on her face most all the time. She was a church-going woman. She didn't really go for her kids playing the blues, but there wasn't much she could do about it. Sam looked a little like her, but from what I can gather, more like his dad. She was a dark brown, but she wasn't as black-skinned as Sam, not a high yella, but a medium brown–complexioned person. She dressed like a housewife, more or less; she wore an apron just about everywhere she went. She had what she called an everyday apron that she wore around the house, and then she had what she called her dressy apron that she would wear to church, or when she got ready to go up town. She put her work apron down and put on her 'Sunday-go-meetin' apron.' All of her Sunday dresses would be neatly starched and ironed, but now her everyday aprons she never put irons on them. They'd just be wrinkly. She said it didn't matter. She wasn't going anywhere. The aprons were made from flour sacks. ... You'd go to town and get a fifty-pound sack of flour and the sacks would be beautiful, with different designs and flowers. And her dresses were homemade, long, down to the floor. They would be different colors. She loved something flashy like pink, something with red, yellow, high yellow, some loud, flashy color."

When Sam was three years old, his father was shot and killed by a man named Floyd Johnson, Langford says, "over a buffalo nickel. They were in a card game called Pitty Pat. And they were playing for a nickel, and Floyd won that nickel and Abe picked it up and put it in his pocket. And Floyd killed him. Abe tried to bluff him out of it, and they scuffled and Floyd shot him." Sam, however, believed that the killing of his father was a conspiracy. "They put someone up to kill him because he was rough," Hopkins said. "He raised good crops and he gambled, and ... he'd win people's cotton and all such as that. And they didn't like him for it. ... He didn't love nothing but gambling and [he'd] drink whiskey and fight and shoot ... so that's the way his life was taken, see. So, that left nobody but my mother to raise us children."

Not long after the death of Abe Hopkins, Sam's oldest brother, John Henry, left home because he said that if he stayed, he'd kill the man who had murdered his father. In time, Warren's Bottom flooded out and the Hopkins family moved to Leona, another small farming community about seven and a half miles south of Centerville. Lee Gabriel was one of Sam's friends in Leona until the age of sixteen. Leona, Gabriel said, "was a little country place. It wasn't an organized town," but it had little stores where sharecroppers and landowners could buy groceries and clothes. "The biggest grocery was owned by Mr. Tom Nash. ... He was the leading food store. And he carried some clothing. When the store had something to wear, Sam would buy something. They had a good understanding. Nobody went around with a chip on his shoulder. He [Sam] bought his shoes there. ... Lurie Thompson had the post office in his store. He was a grocery store too. Each store had a little hardware. There wasn't much variety in the 1920s."

Life in the country was hard, and boys were expected to work in the field alongside their parents. "I worked," Gabriel said, "Sam did too. Farm work, cotton and corn. I learned to plow with a horse and mule. I even plowed with oxen. That was hard work. ... It would take several days to plow a five-acre patch."

Growing up, Gabriel and Sam attended a one-room schoolhouse that had two teachers; one was a woman named Miss Davis, and the other was the principal in addition to being a teacher. Gabriel, who was the son of a circuit preacher, was well-behaved, but he said Sam often got into trouble and was strapped, spanked with a thick leather strap, for not behaving.

When Gabriel and Sam had a little free time, they often went hunting together. "We went rabbit hunting," Gabriel said, "or for any other small animal. The last time we went we found a mink and killed him, skinned his pelt and sold it, got big money — $1.75." Occasionally they went horseback riding, though Gabriel recalls, "Sam was not a very good horseman. ... Sam liked to ride, but not as well as I did. ... The big thing then was for kids to race. But Sam didn't race. Sam liked to gamble. It was customary back then. There were lots of boys who gambled, mostly dice ... craps ... and the older boys played cards and bet on them local horse races." Sam also got into fights. "Once in a while, boys get too idle," Gabriel said. "Sam and this boy had a scuffle over a girl friend ... kind of a push and wrestle. A lot of pretty girls back then."

Because Gabriel's father was a preacher, his activities outside of school were restricted. However, on Saturday nights, he'd sometimes meet up with Sam at square dances. "Somebody would call the dances for each set — two-steps and waltzes," Gabriel said. "Each dance lasted five or six minutes. They called them dances 'breakdowns.' They had fiddles and sometimes guitars. The guy who called the dance was Tom Butler. He was an older man. And at the end of the set, he'd say, 'Hands in your pocket, go to the candy stand.' Either get you a sandwich or get a plate for the ones who really wanted to buy dinner. They always had some kind of food, fishes or any of the meats. And they made corn liquor. That was during Prohibition. And I knew Sam to be guilty of drinkin' corn liquor."

Lorine Washington was also a friend of the Hopkins family, but she didn't remember any fiddles at the square dances that she went to in the area around Leona and Centerville. "There'd be two guitars," she says, "sometimes one, and they did flat-foot dancing."

While Washington and Gabriel differ in their memories of the square dances, it seems clear that the music performed depended on the musicians who were available. The square dances were often held outside or in the front room of someone's house, Washington says, and "they'd have to move the furniture out into the yard or into a back room." Frequently, Sam recalled, the square dances were family gatherings that were organized around "country suppers," where everyone brought a dish.

Musically, the country suppers mixed blues with a kind of music that Sam described as "fast old stomp time." "That's dance," Sam said in 1967. "You get out there and dance. You see Scruggs [Flatt and Scruggs TV Show] and how they get to jumpin' that hillbilly thing they get stompin'? That's the way everybody dance when you get to playing 'Oh, my baby, take me back' or 'Old Stomp Time.' You be two or three out there dancing against one another ... and the one [who] out dances the other get a quarter, four bits, sometimes a dollar if it's well off white guys be down there. ... Buck dancin', they called it. Buck and wing ... and them people dance on Saturday night, Sunday they go to church, Monday they go to the field."

Sam loved the country suppers and square dances, and, as he got older, he started bringing his guitar. "I'd go from farm to farm," he said. "They have them dances why, because they been workin' hard all the week, makin' them big crops. ... There were singers and players, quite a few ... because near about everybody around them square dances could near about play for them. All you had to do was rap on your guitar and they'd pat and holler. Ole sister would shout, 'You swing mine and I'll swing yours!' and all that. And sometimes they would have the blues played, but they mostly was really dancin' you see. Have fast songs like 'Oh, my baby, take me back' and 'You swing mine and I'll swing Sue, We're goin' down to the barbecue....' That's jumpin' at that time."

The square dances that Sam described were organized in a way that was quite similar to those of their white counterparts. Historically, African American musicians had played for the white balls in the big plantation houses in the years before emancipation, and this tradition continued. Moreover, black fiddlers, guitarists, and banjo players performed at barn dances or on the corn-shucking grounds of plantations and farms for what were called "Saturday night frolics." They played the tunes for the quadrilles, cotillions, and set dances that were popular in white rural communities, and the musical repertory of black musicians influenced their white counterparts. In the 1920s white musicians like the Texan Eck Robertson, Riley Puckett, Fiddlin' John Carson, and Gid Tanner made commercial recordings of country dance music, though relatively few black musicians playing this style were ever recorded.

Henry Thomas, an East Texas guitarist and quill player who often used a banjo tuning, was a rare exception, and his 1928 recording for Vocalion of a song called "Old Country Stomp" featured his singing of couplets and single lines that evoked the spirit of the square dances for which he had undoubtedly performed.

Get your partners, promenade
Promenade, boy, round and round
Hop on, you started wrong
Take your partner, come on the train I'm going away,
I'm going away

While Thomas's recording does not illustrate the particular dance forms associated with his music, it does create a kind of composite picture of the instrumental accompaniment. Clearly, in performance, some of the dances were structured and patterned after established sets and quadrilles; others were more individualistic and rooted in African American tradition.

Langford says that in addition to playing guitar and singing at country dances, Sam was a dancer too. "Sam had one step that was out of sight, an extraordinary mixture of tap and the buck dance. Sam was also good at hambone [a style of dance that involves stomping as well as slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks] and Joel [his brother] was good too. One be on the guitar, one be doin' hambone. And if someone said Joel was better, it would be fist city."

In the Hopkins family everyone played some kind of music or sang. Gabriel even recalled Sam playing the pump organ when he came by the church, though he didn't remember him singing church songs. Yet Sam said that he not only played the pump organ but also that he participated in church services. "I come up in Sunday school too. I played organ in Sunday school, and I played piano in Sunday school. It was fine. ... I opened up the church [service] with the piano. ... They didn't teach me them songs. They made 'em up. Fact of the business, they sing 'em. I played 'em. ... All they do is give me the tune. ... But you see I wouldn't be singing, I just be playing it. When my chorus come in, I just play it."


Excerpted from Lightnin' Hopkins by Alan Govenar. Copyright © 2010 Alan Govenar. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Early Years,
2 Travels with Texas Alexander,
3 The Move to Houston,
4 Rediscovery,
5 The Blues Revival Heats Up,
6 The Touring Intensifies,
7 Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale,
8 An Expanding Audience,
9 The Last Decade,
Selected Bibliography,

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