Read: Lightnin’ Hopkins Biography

Published by Chicago Review Press, Alan Govenar’s Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues offers up an insightful, though necessarily incomplete, overview of the
Texas
bluesman. Check the video clips, below.

 

By Michael Toland

 

There is a pathetic lack of biographies covering blues
musicians. Never mind that the distinctly American art form known as the blues
has had an influence on music almost unmatched by any other genre – the music’s
creators suffer from the same neglect in the literary world as they have in the
music industry. The reasons for this – musical, sociological, historical –
could constitute an essay unto itself, which we’ll skip at this time. Suffice
to say that only in the past decade or so has this begun to change, with
well-regarded bios of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker appearing
on shelves, and Etta James penning her own tome.

 

Lightnin’ Hopkins
isn’t the relative household name of his above-named contemporaries, but blues
aficionados understand his talent and influence as a guitarist and songwriter. The
Texas born-and-bred Hopkins was a fascinating figure in the
blues, a restless soul who moved from home to home, woman to woman, stage to
stage when the mood struck him, telling his largely improvised stories through
his rambling singing style and his to-the-bone fingerpicking. Given his
reputation for autobiographical art, a Hopkins
biography that might shed some light on his somewhat enigmatic narratives is
long overdue.

 

Writer, folklorist and Texas
blues specialist Alan Govenar attempts to redress the situation with Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues, but the
results are mixed. This is largely not Govenar’s fault. Hopkins wasn’t a diarist, gave relatively few
interviews and when he did sit down with journalists could be relied upon only
to tell a story to show himself to best advantage. So Govenar has to rely on
interviews with the people that knew him, from cousins and neighbors (all of
whom are well into their dotage at this point) who grew up with or near him to
musicians, managers and record company owners who worked with him. Each person gives
an account of their participation in Hopkins’
life; in some cases, as with author J.J. Phillips, that account is surprisingly
extensive.

 

For all the fascinating segments on display here, though,
put together they don’t add up to a complete picture. Phillips may describe her
time with Hopkins
down to the last detail, but that time was relatively brief. Many of his
musical associates resolutely, even wisely, stayed out of his personal life,
while some of his closest friends knew little about his career other than that
he had one. Antoinette, Hopkins’ longtime love who lived a double life due to
her marriage to someone else, is conspicuously silent, despite how large she
seems to have loomed in the guitarist’s life – it’s perfectly understandable,
of course, but problematic when attempting to paint a definitive portrait.

 

Govenar attempts to fill in the blanks with the usual
writer’s tricks when faced with holes and conflicting accounts: speculation and
the artist’s own work. The former can be taken with as many grains of salt as
one wishes – Govenar follows logic as closely as he can, but it’s hard to know
how much is accurate. But he also delves deeply into Hopkins’
stylistic craft, quoting the singer’s witty lyrics extensively and giving a
fairly complete picture of Hopkins
as a musician and writer. Govenar also writes expansively on Hopkins’ business dealings, and this provides
the keenest insights into the bluesman’s character. Faced with an industry that
treated performers of his stylistic and racial makeup like slaves, Hopkins dealt with it all
by simply doing what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it: ignoring
exclusive contracts, demanding to be paid for every note he plucked or sang,
taking whatever jobs he felt was right and disregarding everything else. Of
course, this lead to problems – Hopkins
was all too willing to settle for a flat fee when he should have held out for a
royalty rate, and it’s difficult to collect those royalties anyway from a
company disinclined to acquiesce to an artist who’s willfully ignoring an
exclusivity clause.

 

Possibly the finest point made, however, involves not only Hopkins but the blues
business in general. Hopkins
was primarily an electric bluesman, with the amplified guitar as the heart of
his music, as most of his recordings attest. But to many he’s one of the
definitive acoustic country bluesmen, in a sense a Texas troubadour. Just check out the
pictures in the otherwise excellent Legacy/Roots N’ Blues anthology The Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins – he’s
holding an acoustic guitar in every photograph, despite the music on the disk
being almost all electric. Hopkins
wasn’t the only blues veteran encouraged during the ‘60s folk boom to pick up
an acoustic guitar and tell homespun stories of hardscrabble life between
tunes. He was certainly willing if the pay was right. But his acoustic forays
tended to be mostly for white audiences looking for an “authentic” blues
experience as defined by their own prejudices and romanticism, and those
audiences went on to write the histories of the blues that persist today. Never
mind that Hopkins spent most of his time rocking primarily African-American
joints with an amp and, in the latter half of his life, a rhythm section, and
had since the beginning of his career. For a lot of blues scholars, only his
acoustic recordings are “authentic,” a misperception that spread across the
genre in general. Electric blues artists like Waters, Wolf, Hooker and Buddy
Guy came through it with their reputations as bandleaders and houserockers intact.
Hopkins,
despite being the equal of his more celebrated colleagues, mysteriously did
not.   

 

The flaws that mar this book are mostly not Govenar’s fault;
he does the best he can with what he as, and adds enough compelling research in
the areas he can cover to mostly make up for the fact that the average Hopkins
fan won’t feel he knows the man any better after turning the last page than he
did when he opened the cover. Ultimately, Lightnin’
Hopkins: His Life and Blues
may serve Hopkins’ legacy best by encouraging
readers to seek out his music, and that provides a bigger picture of the man’s
life than this book ever could.

 

 

 


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