Blues musician Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins grew up in a small Texas town called Centreville. In 1915, when Hopkins was around three, a white posse chased down a black man suspected of murder. The mob lynched him from a tree just across from the town courthouse. For years that same tree had been used as a gallows for black men suspected of a crime; the last man would hang there in 1919. Locals referred to it as the “tree of justice”.
Though the authors of a new biography of Sam Hopkins named their book Mojo Hand, after one of the guitarist’s songs, they could have easily borrowed the title of Jackie Robinson’s memoir, I Never Had It Made. The year of the lynching, Hopkins’s father was murdered in a fistfight. His older brother skipped town for fear of what he might do if he ever met his father’s killer.
Hopkins lived the kind of life immortalized in the music of Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson (the latter a personal mentor to Hopkins). It was a life of back-alley gambling and juke joints, railway men and chain-gangs. He spent his childhood in towns so marginalized they literally didn’t warrant mention on county maps. At eight-years-old Hopkins followed his brother’s lead and left home to ride the rails.
Hopkins cut his teeth playing two or three shows a night in bars and dancehalls across the South. He didn’t make a lot of money doing this; music was just a way to escape the tedium of sharecropping—work not all that different from the sort his grandfather had been forced to perform under the whip.
It didn’t matter that he basically had only two songs, or played a grand total of two keys or that he completely ignored time signatures. Hopkins had a raw, occasionally transcendent talent that revealed itself the very first time he touched a guitar. On the very best Hopkins recordings, he displays a spasmodic and (yes) electrifying improvisational style paired with a gift for distilling raw emotions into deceptively simple lyrics.
There are essentially two chapters in Hopkins’s musical story. There are his late ‘40s and ‘50s recordings followed by a brief period of obscurity and then rediscovery. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hopkins went on a recording spree. Though he never made a lot of money, Hopkins was a central figure in the ‘60s blues revival, when famous white rock stars acknowledged their debt to black American music.
Authors Timothy J O’Brien and David Ensminger track both of these periods with a strict, occasionally staggering research ethic. The two share a historian’s love of primary sources and Mojo Hand often faithfully transcribes entire newspaper articles and album liner notes. The result is that the book often can’t help but read like a sociology paper (it was adapted from O’Brien’s Ph.D. dissertation).
The painstaking research does sometimes pay off. Hopkins liked to claim that he once sang his way out of prison, but probably he made that up. The authors tie the fabrication to Hopkins’s attempt to claim his place as spiritual heir to the legacy of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly (who told a similar story). He certainly dressed the part: always wearing dark shades and crisp western shirts, his hair teased and slick, a perpetual cigarette dangling from his lips. Hopkins looks like the kind of man who could have sung his way to freedom.
Mojo Hand is strongest during passages like these, where the authors parse Hopkins’s personal myth-making and provide context for his life and music: his hardscrabble upbringing, his careful and often fraught navigation through the racism of Jim Crow, to his period of modest success during the ‘60s when Hopkins club gigs brought a mix of white and black audiences (though usually not at the same show).
O’Brien and Ensminger clearly want to demystify the blues, to get past the old stories of devils and crossroads and bluesmen selling their souls. These myths, they argue, overshadow the social and cultural context that forged the blues. The spirit of the music didn’t emanate from some supernatural origin. Rather it was forged from a host of influences cultural and spiritual. The blues was born from the hard lives and the resilience inherent in the people who lived under the shadow of Jim Crow.
By its final third, Mojo Hand settles into a pattern listing club performances and almost identical recording sessions. Hopkins would show up to the studio and haggle over money (the man never signed contracts to avoid being hosed by unscrupulous label owners, but it also meant he basically never collected any royalties). He’d down half a bottle of gin or whiskey and make up a batch of songs on the spot. If there happened to be any session musicians on-hand, they just followed Hopkins’s lead and hope they didn’t get caught up during his erratic chord changes. Hopkins didn’t do second takes.
Despite the good work the book does putting his life and work in historical context, the picture we get of Sam Hopkins the man is fractured and hazy. We’re offered only snippets: He was a simple man, probably illiterate. He liked gambling and drinking. He sometimes got into fights. He hated being away from home for too long, and because of this would often turned down lucrative tour offers. Depending on who you ask, Hopkins was either shy and polite or aloof and standoffish. The book frequently points to lyrics that attest to Hopkins’s love for family, but we get very little insight into his home life.
For all the meticulous research, Mojo Hand struggles to pull together assorted factoids and anecdotes into a compelling personal narrative. The attempt to demystify this legendary musician is a noble one, but the authors may have sanded away too much. Sam Hopkins, it seems, remains obscured by those thick shades.