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Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues [Hardcover]

Alan Govenar
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 July 2010
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

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press (6 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556529627
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556529627
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 379,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magisterial book 27 Aug 2010
I confess that I am biased. The first LP I ever bought was by Lightning Hopkins. In 1965 there was not a lot of blues around. For a first bite of the blues I cannot imagine a more atmospheric, mesmerising, wickedly funny and downhome funky candidate than Po' Lightnin'. This book captures all those qualities in a tightly developed narrative which really is hard to put down. Govenar adroitly navigates all the tricky rocks and shoals of "authenticity" (white blues nerds - me included) versus "entertainment" (Lightnin's black audience) with wit and keen insight.
Above all, his sheer zest for this fascinating and complex man shines through.
And the photos are hugely evocative. Evidently Lightnin radiated charisma in whatever context he found himself - even stretched out on his back asleep with a hat on face at a festival. No one carried off a hat better than Lightnin'...
Very few books leave me wanting to read them again immediately. This one did.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive account 13 Mar 2011
This is a work of dedication, of scholarship, of love even. Having said that, Governar never lets his admiration for his subject get in the way of the facts.

On the basis of his recorded output and most especially, Governar's compilation of the cream of that output("Lightnin' Hopkins: His Blues"), Lightnin' Hopkins legacy was never going to be in doubt. It's one of lifes ironies that with the exception of Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, Lightnin' generally distrusted white people, despite the fact that most of those who recorded him, and his main audience, were white. This book presents Lighnin', warts and all, and what Governar uncovers here, is just what a complex, and often contradictory character Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was.

Certainly he seems to have been an exasperating person to deal with, in that he would sign a contract one week and go out the next and record for someone else entirely, and as Governar notes, it's open to question whether Lighnin' ever understood what a contract entailed. If Lightnin' agreed to play a gig, it seems to have been up to the organiser to actually go round, get him out of bed or the neighbourhood bar, and drive him to the venue. During much of his career he insisted on being paid,in cash, in advance, for any recordings he made, or gigs he played, and in the longer term might have made more money if he'd agreed to royalty payments. What is clear is that Sam Hopkins was always his own man, aware of his own worth and unerringly pursuing his own interests regardless of any other consideration. He made no secret of the fact that he could be quite violent, and claimed to have served time in prison, yet on the other hand he could be both generous and gracious in his dealings with others.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read 7 Feb 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Lightnin' Hopkins was never among the first division of blues performers but this book is heartfelt and revealing and shows a truly passionate man doing what he was always destined to do throughout his life.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By Stuart Jefferson - Published on
Hardcover-8 page Introduction,24 pages of b&w photographs,236 pages of text,50 page Discography,23 pages of End Notes,8 page Selected Bibliography,plus Index.

The (late) Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was without a doubt one of the finest blues artists,not just in Texas,but in the entire history of the blues idiom. He was also a man difficult to know. His blues style,no matter if it's traditional,solo acoustic country blues,or in a band setting with electrified instruments,didn't really change much. His songs focused on traditional themes of the blues-women,gambling,alcohol,people he met along the way,and everyday observations about himself and life in general. He was capable of playing simply (and off meter)with just his voice and guitar in the old field-singing style. Or he could propel a song in a toe-tapping boogie/shuffle time,with an electric guitar and/or a rhythm section to great effect.

In this highly readable book,Alan Govenar delves into not just Hopkins' music,but the man himself. The author starts with Hopkins' early life,with details that haven't before now been so thoroughly researched. Govenar spent a decade collecting information from family,close friends,and business acquaintances to fill in a number of areas of Hopkins' life. The photographs give added depth to the book,showing Hopkins,his family,associates,and homes he lived in as a young man. These crisp photos (some unseen by many people) help tell Hopkins' life during his most important years,and are a true bonus.

Beginning with his up-bringing,Govenar details Hopkins' hard-scrabble life growing up in the Texas countryside. The country is where Hopkins first heard music played at country suppers,which was part of the foundation for his own music.Another influence was growing up in a family where everyone played or sang,when Hopkins would sing with his brothers. Several areas of Hopkins' early life are detailed in the book. Hopkins spoke of following Blind Lemon Jefferson from town to town (to avoid share-cropping),with some facts which are hard to verify. He also boasted about being in and out of jail several times,and on being part of a chain-gang. While he (might) have exaggerated about his jail time,the scars around his ankles (which he would show to people) were proof enough of his experience on a chain-gang. Another part of Hopkins' early life detailed in the book,is his meetiong (and playing with) Texas Alexander. Alexander showed Hopkins that a living could be made (however slim) by singing the blues wherever people gathered. Hopkins' style of singing (a sometimes rambling style that musicians had trouble keeping time with) was heavily influenced by Alexander-a style he would continue until he died.

The book then details Hopkins' life in Houston,Texas,and Hopkins' first use (and recordings) with an electric guitar. This particular chapter is very informative with details and background on the era and Hopkins' music. The author then details Hopkins' "rediscovery" by Sam Charters and then Chris Strachwitz (of Arhoolie Records),who both recorded Hopkins during this time. The book goes on to describe the blues revival era (which I remember),and how Hopkins' popularity at clubs and concerts (and his recordings) made Hopkins' name once more "famous". And all the while Hopkins never really revealed himself to those around him. He was capable of entrancing an audience with his wit and stories,while keeping personal details to himself. This era of Hopkins' music is dealt with in great detail,especially his dealings with record companies. Oftentimes Hopkins would demand payment (in cash) before committing anything to tape in the studio. It was during these episodes that his infamous temper would oftentimes explode until he got what he wanted.

Hopkins also toured during the blues revival era-performing coast to coast,and recording when he could. Of particular interest (to me) are the recordings Sam Hopkins did with his brothers Joel,and John Henry (recently out of jail) for Chris Strachwitz. The recording session turned ugly because of to much alcohol,and the songs they recorded are one of a kind.

The rest of the book details Hopkins' life and music,which an ever-expanding audience never seemed to tire. The final chapter deals with Hopkins' last years (and recordings) he spent in Texas. While Hopkins still retained his natural charm with an audience,his song material was uneven in quality-something the author thankfully brings to light.

The anecdotes,the small details which are found throughout this book bring this bluesman to life. For anyone who wants to know what both Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins (or "Po' Lightnin' as he sometimes called himself) and his music were like-read this book. If you aren't familiar with Hopkins-read this book,and then listen to his wonderful blues. Hopkins and his style of blues were unique,even in his era. This great book will open up his music (and an era) from a past long ago,music that still has the power sung by a master blues singer and guitarist.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Bio 27 May 2010
By Frank A. Delaney - Published on
I was stationed in the deep South in the 1960's when many of the older blues men were rediscovered, and I have been playing and researching this music since then. I have a large collection of blues bios and books, videos, and tapes, and this is the best blues Bio I have read.

Lightning Hopkins was always one of my favorites, along with his fellow Texan Mance Lipscomb, and Mississippi players like Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis and Skip James.

I already have an Alan Govenar Book and Video - "Living Texas Blues" - so I was looking forward to his book on Lightning, and it was even better than I had expected.

In this incredibly detailed and well researched book we learn the details of Lightning's early life, which previously had just been alluded to in Les Blanks' video from back in 60's. We learn of Lightning's association with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander and other famous blues personalities, and how parts of his life had been written about by Samuel Charters and Paul Oliver, but to date there has been nothing as revealing as Govenar's book.

It shows that Lightning was never actually rediscovered - he just started recording and playing and although people had a hard time finding him - he was always around. Although we think of him as an acoustic player, he was playing electric guitar very early, and was persuaded to switch back to acoustic to appeal to the Folk Music boomers of the 50's and 60's, as advised by noted musicologist Mack McCormac and others interested in his career.

There is a wealth of blues information in this book, and an equal amount of wonderful and entertaining stories about Lightning. I recommend it as an excellent read, and a must-have in any blues library.

Frank Delaney
Webmaster The Mississippi John Hurt Foundation [...]
Music Producer
KPBX FM 91.1 Spokane Public Radio NPR Network
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine Biography of Lightnin' Hopkins 18 Sep 2010
By R. Weinstock - Published on
This review has appeared on my blog, as well as Jazz & Blues Report.

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.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailed and well researched, but lacking on the musical aspects 31 Jan 2011
By Christophe - Published on
This is a well researched, well written biography. It seems that a lot of information in this book was difficult to retrieve and the author should be praised for his work. However if you are a musician like myself, lover of Lightnin' Hopkins playing, the book seems a bit light on the purely musical aspects of his life: how he developed his style, how the style evolved over the years, the guitars and gear he preferred, and some colors and commentary on his most remarkable songs.
4.0 out of 5 stars Bio Worth Owning 17 April 2014
By reading man - Published on
To be dreadful and honest, who gives a hoot about Lightning Hopkins the man? He was a wastrel, no question about it, and his mother summed him up best: "All he could do was play music".

His music is extraordinary. At his best, he's the authentic successor, if not the equal, of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the father of Texas blues. Vocally, he equals Lemon, instrumentally, he doesn't have Lemon's command of the guitar, which isn't to say that his guitar playing isn't exciting and deft in its own way.

The reason to own this book is that it has a nearly complete discography of Lightning's recordings, which is hard to find in other sources. (A more recent bio of Lightning doesn't contain one.) The discography is well worth the cost of the book.
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