Lightnin' Hopkins: Blues Kingpins

Barbara Flaska

Lightnin' Hopkins

Blues Kingpins

Label: The Right Stuff
US Release Date: 2003-08-05
UK Release Date: Available as import

You've really got to be in the mood to listen to Lightnin' Hopkins, but if you've been doing hot dirty work, or you've been tossed and tumbled and the sky is overcast, a dose of Hopkins is just what the doctor ordered to give the spirits a boost. Hopkins's predominant style is described as "mournful Lone Star laments", and he's playing the blues in a rural vernacular, but everything he does unaccountably cheers you up and makes life seem easier wherever you might be. And such are the mysteries of music. His guitar playing sounds deceptively simple, but that impression is soon belied by the uncommon elegance of his fingerpicked filigrees, which can be a reminder that there is always light and grace. Or it might be the rhythm, the faster tunes known now as the Texas boogie, carried by a slightly stamping shuffle beat. Or his crazy stories that found their way into his songs. In his lengthy 60-year career, Hopkins made more records than any other bluesman before or since. With the advent of the '60s folk blues revival, the name and reputation of Lightnin' Hopkins ballooned to such remarkable proportions that now some people honestly believe he just about invented the blues. So it is most fitting that Right Stuff honors Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins as a major figure, as a Blues King Pin, in their ambitious series saluting the Year of the Blues.

It's a real bonus for the blues fan that Right Stuff took their charge seriously. In assembling the 18 tracks, they gained right of entry to EMI's vast treasure trove of blues recordings. Which in this instance meant that Right Stuff had access to some important material, including Hopkins's earliest sides from Aladdin. Set down in Los Angeles in the 1940's, this is exactly where and when Sam became known forever after as Lightnin'. Important to the blues collector are the inclusion of exceedingly rare tracks by Hopkins for the L.A. blues labels Modern and RPM. Not only have these songs never been released on CD, they've never been re-issued in any form, and these long-hidden jewels contribute nearly half the numbers to this disc. Even though Hopkins released something like 120 albums on vinyl, covering many of these self-written tunes for a myriad of labels, just the rare issue quotient might make a blues snob's heart flutter. Of greater significance is the fact that this material all works exceedingly well when set down next to each other, and altogether creates a superb if not defining collection of Lightnin' laying down his music. Even if you know nothing of Lightnin' Hopkins or his music at all, by the time you finish listening to this, you'll come to understand something of what makes the very essence of Lightnin' Hopkins, country bluesman extraordinaire.

It's only fitting that the opening selection is the famous "Katie Mae Blues". Though Hopkins was a well-seasoned performer, this was his studio debut. One of the first songs he ever recorded (November 9, 1946), he straightaway won himself and Aladdin a regional hit. His nimble runs using every single string, his dazzling fills, and his odd signature upsweep mark him immediately as a guitarist to be reckoned with. Accompanying on the 88's is Wilson "Thunder" Smith (yes, that's "Thunder" and "Lightnin'") on an upbeat tune singing the praises of that good girl Katie Mae ("Folks say she don't run around at night"), that's to say his good girl Katie Mae. The good feeling he has for her is infectious. She's not lazy, he tries to give his woman "everything in the world she needs", so that's why "She don't do nothing but lay up in the bed and read". And Hopkins's poetic descriptions of his woman in motion ("She walks just like she got oil wells in her backyard") can be the envy of any story teller. Especially when some say Katie Mae "must be a Cadillac", but to him (because he knows her better), he knows she's more "like a T-model Ford / She's got the shape all right / But she can't carry no heavy load".

As a masterful, clever lyricist and story-teller, Hopkins is easily on a par with Chuck Berry. Especially on this funny, angry blues called "Short Haired Woman". Hopkins takes a trip to the hair dressers with his wife and soon decides he doesn't want a woman whose hair is no longer than his. The hair dresser turns out to be no help whatsoever -- even he can't help but rub it in, "I can't treat her hair, but I sure can treat her head". Soon Hopkins admits he's feeling trapped in this particular relationship; he doesn't want a short haired woman because she'll just keep him "buyin' rats all the time". And he's probably wishing he could sing an empty bed blues and mean it, because he found "a rat on the pillow where she used to lay".

Sometimes, though, Hopkins's story line can be a bit disturbing. The mood comes through loud and clear, mournful today and anticipating only more death and mourning in the future, as on his chilly "Rocky Mountain Blues". The singer's leaving a woman he's come to love because "it's for the best". He can't stay in her town, and he's leaving at nightfall. He's going to the Rocky Mountains, "the place where I long to be" even though "The Rocky Mountains is a mighty terrible dangerous place". At one point, he holds a note, his voice rising, dropping, and then rising on the word "mountains" that draws a vivid quick sketch of peaks and valleys. He longs to be there, although that's where he watched his baby (another woman) being buried. Hopkins seems to find the most comfort when staring his own sadness and misery straight in the eye.

And some stories are so bad Hopkins just shakes his head and refuses to give any of the details. Like being out on the mountains after he stowed away on the "Santa Fe": "I ain't gonna tell nobody / What that Santa Fe has done to me". The isolation and harsh remoteness that he survived there only reminds him of his current failing relationship where the distance between two people is becoming larger.

Or some stories are so bad, he'll tell you as much as you can stand to hear about it. Like his own foolishness in adding to his own hard lot in life: "Ain't but the one thing you know this black man done was wrong / Yes, I moved my wife and family down on Mr. Tim Moore's Farm". Mr. Tim Moore sounds like a humorless, heartless, and stingy cracker. He's full of himself, which means only he's full of insults and put-downs, unreasonable demands, orders, and rules he makes himself, and he's all too accustomed to keeping others "in their place". Which brings out a wry side comment from Hopkins, maybe repeating a lie told to keep people working: "Soon any morning he'll give you scrambled eggs". (Yes, like hell he will.) When Sam (Hopkins calls himself by his real name in his songs) receives a telegram early in the morning saying his wife has died, Mr. Moore tells Sam to bury her after he's finished working out the day, and orders him to pick up his hoe. With that, Hopkins has finally had his fill, and he replies, "No, Mr. Moore, somebody's got to go". There's no doubt as to who that somebody should be. "Tim Moore's Farm", there had to have been way too many of them, and this brief song spells it all out in slightly more than two minutes. I'm also left with the hollow feeling that the chances are Mrs. Moore, if there were one, received similar treatment at the hands of Mr. Moore.

"Another Fool in Town" is the dark flip side of Chuck Berry's "School Days". This is blues at its most desperate, a look at what can be expected from illiteracy and lack of schooling. Hopkins is a master lyricist, but he doesn't spell it out, so it's clear -- the outlook is so bleak that nothing can be expected. The amplified guitar is full of echo and sustains to emphasize the words, "I ain't got no education / I'm just another fool in town". The singer admits he can't write his name and can't even say his ABC's. He wonders plaintively, "Why can't I get no one educated to come and teach poor me?" Just a little help is asked for: "I just want to get somebody to come teach me / And help me on my way". A three minute song outlines huge social problems.

This collection shows Hopkins edging his rural blues into the modern world. On "Fast-Mail Rambler" Hopkins carries his country style easily over to electric guitar, and such transpositions aren't as easy as might first seem. By the time he plays "Lonesome Dog Blues", Hopkins can make his amplified guitar howl like a lonely hound. Hopkins began his career in the 1920s and continued working on into the early 1980s, when he passed away. During those years, the blues underwent remarkable changes, but Hopkins adhered to his own rustic style. As one of the last great country bluesmen, who helped define the sound of Texas blues, Lightnin' Hopkins still deserves every bit of attention he can get, especially from people interested in the blues. The Right Stuff's Blues King Pins can be a great starting point for discovering Hopkins's work or a wonderful way to be re-introduced.

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