Mojo Hand: The Life and Music of Lightnin' Hopkins
In a career that took him from the cotton fields of East Texas to the concert stage at Carnegie Hall and beyond, Lightnin’ Hopkins became one of America’s greatest bluesmen.
Excerpted from Mojo Hand: The Life and Music of Lightnin' Hopkins by Timothy J. O'Brien and David A. Ensminger (footnotes omitted). (Copyright © 2013) Appears by the permission of the University of Texas Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com.
East Texas Cotton Picking Blues
The blues is born with you. When you born in this world, you were born with the blues. Lightnin’ Hopkins, 1967
“I was working trying to take care of my wife, me and my mother, six bits a day and that was top price. I’d come in in the evening it look like I’d be so weak that my knees be clucking like a wagon wheel. I’d go to bed and I’d say, ‘Well baby I just can’t continue like this.’” Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins’s recollection of his life toiling in the fields for seventy-five cents a day is one example of farm laborer misery and fortitude in the Deep South during the 1920s and 1930s, when agricultural laborers in Hopkins’s East Texas environs endured the backbreaking work of planting and harvesting crops. Long after the Civil War faded, the scorching Texas sun beat down on such African Americans. Hopkins’s early life, in fact, did not differ much from his grandparents’—slaves in the very same fields. The family seemed tethered to the land of Centerville, Texas, which sits halfway between Dallas and Houston, just east of present-day Interstate 45. Hopkins’s subsistence living and small-town upbringing in this rough-and-tumble agrarian society deeply impacted his personality and music, shaping both his lyrics and banter.
In the pre-emancipation days of 1860, Leon County had fewer than seven thousand residents spread out over 1,078 square miles. The Navasota River forms Leon County’s western border with Robertson County, while the Trinity River, the eastern border with Anderson and Houston Counties, drains two-thirds of the county. Freestone County lies north of Leon County, and Madison County borders it to the south. Folks like the Hopkinses planted the rich, rolling East Texas land with cotton, corn, and peas. In 1860, only three Leon County families farmed more than five hundred acres. Half of Leon County’s seven hundred families worked less than fifty acres. Land not used for agriculture was thick with oak, elm, hickory, and mesquite trees. Some of the trees were harvested for fuel, fencing, and buildings by numerous small sawmills, which met the demand for lumber.
In 1872, workers completed the International and Great Northern, Leon County’s first railroad. Entering the county at the northeast corner, the tracks traveled in a southwesterly direction. Financier Jay Gould backed the project, which spurred several important changes. For one, trade on the Trinity River soon collapsed; thus, the population shifted from older towns like Centerville and Leona to upcoming towns established along the train’s route, such as Buffalo, Jewett, Oakwoods, and Marquez. Buffalo and Jewett quickly became substantial centers of commerce and trade.
The Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad and the Houston and Texas Central also ran thirty or so miles through the county, connecting the towns of Normangee, Flynn, and Concord. Another transportation option was the Tri-Weekly Hack Line, which ran between Jewett and Hopkins’s hometown. The five-hour, one-way trip cost travelers one dollar. By 1909, companies started exploiting coal deposits west of Jewett. One of Hopkins’s most important influences, Alger “Texas” Alexander, was born near Jewett in 1900. Alexander worked on the Leon County railroad tracks and as a farm laborer in Leon County.
In the nineteenth century, Texas teemed with slavery. In 1860, 2,620 slaves made their home in Leon County alone. Almost half of the seven hundred white families in the county owned at least one slave, but most owned fewer than ten. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Texas was home to almost 200,000 slaves. Although Centerville did not see any Civil War battles, several notorious outlaws did pass through the town during the conflict.
Toward the close of the Civil War, a band of twenty guerillas commanded by the notorious William Clark Quantrill showed up on the Centerville town square. Quantrill’s men were Confederate partisans who often operated behind enemy lines. They provided intelligence for Confederate troops and pillaged Union sympathizers. The infamous outlaw Jesse James, his brother Frank, and Cole Younger rode with Quantrill. Union troops shot and killed Quantrill in June 1865, but his men became outlaws after the war. By all accounts, Quantrill’s raiders quickly dispersed from the town of Centerville.
Texans learned late that President Abraham Lincoln had granted slaves their freedom. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in the port of Galveston and issued his General Order Number 3, which proclaimed, “All slaves are free.” From that day on, in Texas, June 19th became known and celebrated as the Juneteenth holiday. Born into slavery in 1844, just six miles west of Centerville on the McDaniel plantation, Willis Anderson remembered the day that the slaves in Centerville learned of their freedom. In an interview for the Works Progress Administration slave narratives project, Anderson recalled that the news of freedom came to Centerville when Yankee soldiers traveling through the town told the slave owners to free their slaves.
During Reconstruction, two companies of Federal soldiers occupied Leon County. The seventy-five troops camped in tents on Beaver Creek one mile outside of Centerville. There was some talk by the local citizens of a rebellion against the Yankee occupiers, but after Richard Coke took the Texas governor’s office in 1874, the reasons for dissatisfaction eased because he restored antebellum political conditions. Meanwhile, most of the freed slaves stayed in Leon County and became sharecroppers. The former slaves usually worked for one-half or one-third of the crop they raised.
Abe Hopkins, Sam’s father, worked as a sharecropper in Leon County. The elder Hopkins was born in Leon County in 1873. Although not born into slavery, he endured the far from ideal conditions typical for African Americans just eight years after emancipation. As the son of a freed slave, Abe’s lifestyle was that of a dirt-poor sharecropper who lived from crop to crop. Sharecropping consisted of a cycle of work and debt heavily tilted toward white landowners. After working the land day in and day out from sunup to sundown (or “can to can’t”), at harvest time sharecroppers sold the cotton or other crop they had raised and applied the proceeds to pay back the amount their landowner had advanced them for supplies.
Hence, the sharecroppers were at the mercy of both the merchant, who set the price, and the landowner, who kept the books, and a firm grip, on what a tenant owed. If the sharecropper was illiterate, he was even more vulnerable to being swindled by unscrupulous white plantation owners. After a season of backbreaking labor, sharecroppers often ended up earning less money than they had been advanced for their supplies. This exploitive system bound the sharecropper to the land for yet another season, continuing the cycle of hard-bitten poverty. As Navasota, Texas, songster Mance Lipscomb noted, sharecroppers felt little difference between sharecropping and slavery: “I was in slavery right up to 1942... sharecropping, yeah.”
Furthermore, the end of slavery did not mean that Southern whites’ racial attitudes toward African Americans underwent a radical change. Abe Hopkins’s neighbors frowned on race mixing, in particular. Examples of such racial attitudes are evident in a column Amos Keeler penned for the Jewett County Messenger newspaper in 1889. Upset about whites attending black festivities in Buffalo, a town about seventeen miles north of Centerville, he evinced distaste:
Well, who would have thought it! Some of Buffalo’s respectable people were at the negro festible [sic] a few nights ago. Now, I think if people study the matter a bit they are bound to admit that they had better stayed at home. Such places are not fit for anybody to go to. That’s what makes the blacks so forward and sassy with the white people, just because whenever they have a meeting of that kind some white people are there.
Abe Hopkins, meanwhile, made his home in Centerville, managing to eke out a tumultuous life of drinking, gambling, and fighting. Eventually, his reckless lifestyle caught up with him, and he was charged and convicted in a homicide case. After being released from the penitentiary, he returned to the Centerville area. By the turn of the century, he had met fifteen-year-old Frances Washington. Minister Moses Clark married them on May 9, 1901.
On February 3, 1902, Frances gave birth to their first son, John Henry. Abe and Frances worked as farm laborers. By 1910, they supported a growing young family of six. John Henry was now nine and worked as a farm laborer to help support his younger siblings: Joel, seven, Abe Junior, four, and Alice, two. Sam Hopkins was the baby of the family. Although scholars do not dispute his birth date, March 15, the year is still not certain. When the 1920 census taker counted the Hopkins family in their precinct on January 29 and 30, 1920, he reported Hopkins’s age as eight years old, which suggests 1911 as his birth year. However, mistakes by census takers were not unusual: they only record information respondents gave them. For example, the age of Frances, Hopkins’s mother, was listed as twenty-five on the 1910 census, which was recorded on April 28, 1910. Yet, on the 1920 census taken in January 1920, Frances Hopkins’s age was recorded as thirty-six. Less than ten years had passed, but Frances Hopkins had managed to age eleven years. Hopkins himself claimed he was born in 1912. In the Houston-based recording Goin Back and Talk to Mama from 1949 or 1950, he mentions his birth date: “I was born March 15th—man the year was 19 and 12.” The social security death register puts Hopkins’s birth date as March 12, 1911, while his death certificate lists March 12, 1912, as his birth date. When Hopkins received his social security account, he also listed his year of birth as 1912.
Hopkins’s rural roots exposed him to what would become his lifelong hobby—fishing: “I was born down by the river, they call it Warren’s Bottom.” “I was born on the banks of the river, that’s the reason I’m a fisherman from my heart. I was born on the banks of the river that’s true, water flowing I guess... Cuz that was on the Red River.” Unfortunately for Sam Hopkins and his family, the calming and lazy flowing river through Leon County did nothing to soothe Abe Hopkins’s wild ways. After he fathered a family, Abe Hopkins continued drinking, gambling, and shooting guns. Sometimes the elder Hopkins’s gambling winnings were paid in cotton. Another time his winnings amounted to a mule and a wagon.
Sam Hopkins might have been old enough to notice friction between his mother and father due to his father’s carousing, because later he recorded a song called “Mama and Papa Hopkins”:
I wonder why my mama don’t love my papa no more
I guess my daddy been doing something wrong...
Oh yea caused my mom’s heart to ruin
In 1915, when Hopkins was about three years old, his father was murdered. Minus a breadwinner, the Hopkinses’ family life quickly became hardscrabble. His mother Frances kept the family mended and supported as best she could, but she soon came to understand the difficulty of feeding and clothing five children all by herself. In addition to the dangerous racial climate, Frances lived in a time when women suffered second-class citizenship. For example, a nearby newspaper, the Grapeland Messenger, carried an item on May 20, 1915, that read, “Hats off to Houston! She is the first city in Texas to start an organized movement against women’s suffrage.” Unfortunately, women like Frances were years away from benefiting from the freedoms promoted and pioneered by suffragettes.
Right after Abe Hopkins died, the oldest Hopkins boy, John Henry, left the family and Centerville, saying he had to leave so he would not harm the man who killed his father. I will not be coming back, he told his family as he left. In turn, the rest of the Hopkins family moved about nine miles south from Centerville to Leona.
Sam Hopkins was raised in a dangerous Jim Crow racial climate. Similar to many other towns in the Deep South, Centerville experienced incidents of racially motivated vigilante justice on a regular basis. Stemming from white supremacist ideology, the violence instilled palpable fear in the African American community while enforcing and maintaining the rancor between races and the racial status quo. Like all African Americans, Hopkins’s family lived under the threat that at any time they faced death or injury. The Hopkinses also understood that the justice system would not be able to protect them. Even long after Hopkins became a world-renowned musician, his friends noticed his lifelong fear of the police.
For instance, in Centerville, the hanging tree, or the “tree of justice” as the locals called it, stood in front of the courthouse square. During the early days of Texas statehood, General Sam Houston traveled from Huntsville to Centerville and stood under the hanging tree to speak to Leon County citizens. Racists used the hanging tree to lynch African Americans from the Civil War until 1919. During Reconstruction, one black was hanged from the tree and left to swing for two nights and a day before his stretched-out body was finally cut down. The complete record of all the folks who met their fate on the Centerville hanging tree does not survive, but the legacy of terror likely victimized twenty thousand black men in the whole post-Reconstruction South, inspiring haunting songs like “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.
The account of one Centerville incident is preserved in an article written and published by editor G. R. Englelow in the November 27, 1919, edition of The Record, a Centerville newspaper. At daybreak on a Monday morning, two gunshots were heard. News got around that the dead body of Jim Sinclair, an Anglo, had been found. Sinclair had been murdered in his home. Sinclair’s mother suspected that the murderer was an African American tenant farmer and preacher who lived on their property. The tenant farmer had been angry with Sinclair. Deputy Sheriff Wade Lowrance searched the African American suspect’s house in vain. After Sheriff Cobb was summoned from his mother’s bedside in Normangee, he rounded up a posse and some bloodhounds in Madisonville. The suspect was tracked to the farm of Joel Leatherman. After a chase of three or four miles, the suspect surrendered without resistance and was placed in jail. Wednesday morning the suspect was found swinging from a limb of the large oak tree in front of the courthouse. Billy Bizor, Hopkins’s childhood friend, could point it out: “Used to sit right in front of the jailhouse, big old oak tree. If there been gangsters in those days like that, they’d come out of the jailhouse and swung on a limb and come down the trees.”
Another newspaper account claimed that the dispute that caused the killing stemmed from a disagreement about cotton. Sam Hopkins, however, remembered a different reason: “They hung him cuz god damn he told a white man to stop from fucking with his wife. And he just kept on doing it and he said man, well if you keep that up, I’m gotta do something to you... it would have been a hell of a thing to see that man the way he was hung.”
The school in Centerville closed on the Monday of the murder because of the incident. Everyone in the area, including young girls, tried to see the body of the accused killer. A song was even written about the event. That episode of racial terror served to underline the fact that whites were firmly in control. African Americans had better stay in their places, incidents like these symbolized, lest they be dealt with in a similar manner. The niceties and legality of a jury trial would not be afforded to African Americans accused of a crime. A noose served as their judge and jury.
By the time Hopkins was seven years old, his father had been killed, his oldest brother, only fourteen, had left home, and at least one local African American had been yanked from the town jail and lynched in the town square. In addition, Hopkins’s grandfather, a slave, met a violent death. “My granddaddy hung hisself [sic] to keep from having those hard times. He’d rather be out this world. He’d rather be in another world, to keep from having hard times.” The violence demonstrated by these incidents was common, immediate, and significant. Racial terror was an everyday aspect of African Americans’ lives.
The Hopkins family was poor, but they kept themselves entertained by making music. Hopkins’s brothers and sister played guitar, and his mother could play a hymn on the accordion. One of Hopkins’s childhood friends remembered, “Him and his brothers, his sister, all of them, you know, could play. He was a boy then. And... I used to enjoy listening at him. We wasn’t nothing but kids but I like the music. We was just kids together but we were having a good time.”
Hopkins taught himself to play guitar by borrowing his brother John Henry’s instrument when he was not home. One day John Henry came home, caught his brother on the instrument, and asked him to show what he could play. After Hopkins strummed out a tune, his brother approved and asked him where he had learned it. Hopkins replied, “Well, I just learned it.” A friend from Hopkins’s youth remembered such self-taught style, “He didn’t have to practice. He picked it up and played it... He could pick up a guitar and jump it. He was just like a lumberjack on that dancin’. Don’t fool yourself and think he couldn’t dance or play that guitar.” Hopkins’s natural musical ability eventually freed him from the sharecropper fields.
In an interview for a documentary film, Hopkins recalled his childhood: “I was eight years old when I made my first guitar. I got the screen wire off the screen door to make my little sound on my little box. I made it out of a cigar box, I kept champing on it and I’d ask my brother to let me play his guitar. He said, no boy, you can’t play this guitar. He never did decide to let me play his guitar. So he told me one day, boy don’t you fool with my guitar. But it wasn’t hanging too high from the wall. I got a chair and got it down. One day they went to the field. They come in and I had it down on the floor, laying on the floor but I was picking a tune, and he heard the guitar and he walked in and it was playing so good he just stood there and listened. He liked it so well he said didn’t I tell you not to bother that guitar? His name was John Henry. My brother, oldest brother, so he said you can have it. So that’s how good the music sounded to him.”
In addition to his family, one of Hopkins’s early musical influences was Albert Holley, a local blues musician he heard singing a song to his widowed mother Frances. “I heard him play; he was sitting on the foot of the bed. He was saying, ‘Baby come sit down on my knee I got something to tell you keeps on worrying me.’ And he was saying that to mama. I just listened. I just picked up on what he was saying. The song appealed to me, and made me feel good. I just walked by ’em and by ’em. That was one thing he was saying that I do remember to this day. ‘Baby come sit down on my knee.’ He was right back on the foot of the bed pickin’ the guitar looking at mama... I was seven years old. So that give me some ideas how to sing too.” Hopkins, already an astute observer of human nature, later developed that key ingredient of songwriting, mustering songs off hand, spontaneously, and fluidly from sundry details of life.
When Hopkins was young, he also heard his mother’s cousin, Tucker Jordan, a fiddler, and Jordan’s wife Rose, a guitar player. Years later Hopkins used a lyric creatively culled from the Jordans, “Don’t the sun look pretty going down,” as a lyric to his song “Shining Moon”: “I know it was pretty music and that gave me an idea. I never did learn the fiddle, but I learned the guitar. That’s the way it happened.” Hopkins realized his musical talent was “a gift... There was an old lady told me, said son, it was your mother had music in her heart when she was carrying you. You know what that means don’t you? Well alright, then. Well she must have cuz when I come in this world I come in doing this [plays a chord]... I swear to God.” Hopkins soon realized his innate, idiosyncratic, indelible style, allowing him to forge, after some threadbare struggle and profound patience, a brazen route ahead.
Tim O’Brien, Houston, Texas,
April 2011. Photo (partial) by
Photo (partial) by Julie Ensminger