Graded on a Curve:
Lightnin’ Hopkins,
Texas Blues Man

Of late there’s been a very welcome flurry of prime reissues originating from the powerhouse vaults of Arhoolie Records. Two of the best come from the man renowned near and far as Lightnin’ Hopkins, the most recent being the 1968 LP Texas Blues Man. It’s a fine batch of tunes from a true legend in prime form, and it’s also an opportunity to get up close and personal with a still potent artifact from the golden age of blues vinyl.

The collecting of blues records can be an intense experience. Over the years so many albums have seen release in this sneakily diverse genre that attempting to become a completist is a foolhardy endeavor. Hell, that’s an understatement; trying to assemble the complete works of a certain prolific artists alone proves to be a mug’s game.

Small press runs, high prices fueled by the rarity of discs in good condition, obscure imports and the maddening fact that assorted 78 and 45 sides never made it to LP or compact disc can turn the discography of a fruitful lifetime bluesman into a study in abject frustration. And that’s to say nothing of some of the outlandish, at times exasperating merchants/dealers that will cross the path of a hopeful collector in their desire to obtain an elusive piece of the enormous jigsaw that is the American blues.

Beginning for the small Aladdin label in the mid-‘40s the guitarist known as Sam John Lightnin’ Hopkins amassed what’s been called the largest output of any single blues musician, a truly formidable stack of wax that will take a dedicated listener a lifetime to fully absorb. He recorded acoustic and amped-up, in ramshackle dives and at Carnegie Hall, in rough and tumble band configurations and in the stark solo context. Along the way his cool and calm demeanor was captured by documentarian Les Blank in the short film The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins and had his suave likeness rendered by the brilliant pen of Robert Crumb. And through it all his music remained distinctly identifiable as belonging to one powerful and unique voice.

This isn’t to infer that Hopkins was sui generis as an artist. Actually, far from it; this is the blues after all. As a young man he worked with the singer Texas Alexander, a legend of the early blues who was reportedly Hopkins’ cousin. And the story goes that as an eight year old Lightnin’ witnessed the playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, an event that provided a prepubescent epiphany for the young Sam John. However, his greatest contemporary peer (or parallel) in terms of sheer magnitude of output and breadth of personal style is probably John Lee Hooker.

Throughout the second half of the ‘40s and the decade that followed, Hopkins like Hooker was able to reel off a wealth of duo/full band material at an impressively high rate of success (in particular, the scorching proto-rock-‘n’-roll madness he laid down for the Herald label in ‘54), a mass of songs that also possess a repetitiveness that’s sorta inherent to highly prolific artists in that era of the electric blues, and therefore by extension quite intriguing.

But after Hopkins “rediscovery” by folklorists Mack McCormick and Sam Charters he recorded far less frequently and less successfully as a bandleader, instead working a stately if highly natural solo role, partially because that’s where the money was (and Hopkins reputedly always demanded full payment before any tapes were made) but also due to how the younger bucks on the bandstand often proved flummoxed by the looseness of Lightning’s approach. This is another similarity he shares with Hooker, though while John Lee was perfectly willing to record solo, the man just as often obstinately plowed forward in a band setting whether the backing could keep up or not.

Vinyl lovers that are currently chomping at the bit to get some prime blues action into their collections should wholeheartedly rejoice at the lovingly rendered Arhoolie reissues that have been appearing in the racks of discerning shops over the last few months. Along with some of the out-of-left-field selections provided by the Mississippi imprint of Portland Oregon, these Arhoolie titles are the easiest and most cost effective way for younger wax fans to get a taste of the gorgeous majesty of a bygone era. The only thing they lack is that they’re not originals. They are “exact replicas” however, with the same paste on (often black and white) covers that felt deliciously archaic all the way back when I first handled them circa ’86 or so.

Hopkins has two LPs in this spate of reissues, the ’62 band outing with drummer Spider Kilpatrick Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins (one of his best group efforts) and the ’68 ten-song solo joint, Texas Blues Man. The former might already be problematic to find, but the latter is out fresh this week, so if owning a copy is an even slightly tempting proposition then best get to snapping before it’s gone.

First off, Texas Blues Man possesses in spades the traits that made Chris Strachwitz’s still solvent label such a valuable trove of diverse American music. His blues albums were often products of rediscovery or even long belated introductions to obscure but vital regional treasures (like Mance Lipscomb), and yet they refreshingly lacked the all too common stuffy formality that hung over the LPs cut for larger, more professional companies. Instead, there was an appealing sense of the everyday to the proceedings; the best Arhoolie blues documents (and there were many of those, Strachwitz holding an extremely high standard) captured the form at its most natural and uninhibited.

Hopkins’ playing across Texas Blues Man is warm and relaxed, though never lacking the tension and depth of feeling that’s integral to the genre. It displays the full-on back porch mode that made the man such a welcome regular on folk festival stages in both the USA and in Europe. And the encouraging nature of Strachwitz’s enterprise allowed Hopkins to stretch out from the very beginning; opener “Tom Moore’s Blues” reaches five minutes in length, his playing hoeing a fertile, fascinating middle ground between impressionistic and focused.

While startlingly effective in its unembellished power, “Tom Moore’s Blues” doesn’t reach for emotional devastation ala Hooker’s legendary reading of “Tupelo” from the 1960 Newport Folk Festival. Instead it goes for a more meditative if just as abstract aura of reflection that sets the tone for what follows to near perfection.

And what does follow is both diverse and concise enough to register without a trace of redundancy or overkill. Track two “Watch My Fingers” is an exceptional bit of solo boogie as bragging, featuring the sort of well-mingled technical flash and unforced verbal confidence that could tear down the walls of a ramshackle campus coffee-house circa ’66 or so and with utter ease, leaving nothing but dust, upended chess boards, shattered ceramic mugs, and a throng of enthusiastic and over-caffeinated students. Plus, over next to the bean grinder, shaking his head in sheer disbelief is a guy that looks suspiciously like Dave Van Ronk. Go figure.

“Little Antoinette” is a slower, more traditional, far more direct blues than the first two tracks, and it also contrasts well with the talking blues of “Love Like a Hydrant” that follows, the tune allowing Hopkins to integrate a little bit of light slide work into the rich mix of his picking, fingers at this point undiminished by the inevitability of age.

And from there the record proceeds without a single misfire. But Texas Blues Man’s strongest attribute might be its ability to appeal to a diverse listenership. While this is surely deep blues, it’s also not a potentially thorny, difficult listen ala the very interesting Louisiana figure Robert Pete Williams. While undoubtedly personal, Hopkins’ flights of abstraction never stray far from the realm of social music.

In fact, this record makes plain how Hopkins could appeal so easily to the folk crowd, for he stood on stages with such hootenanny titans as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez while also satisfying the often confoundingly strict demands of hardcore blues nuts. And he achieved all this without any affectation, unlike say Howlin’ Wolf sporting overalls and a straw hat in an attempt to cozy up to festival crowds in the early ‘60s.

Other reissued albums from Arhoolie include Mance Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster, Fred McDowell’s Vol. 2 and Delta Blues, Big Joe Williams’ Tough Times, Earl Hooker’s Two Bugs and a Roach and self-titled LPs from Black Ace and Lil Son Jackson.

And just think; there’s no haggling over price with some grumpy dealer in the dank basement of a suburban Antique Mall. Or for that matter no overpriced secondhand internet purchase that arrives slightly warped or otherwise visibly damaged, resulting in a once hopeful heart sinking like a stone into a deep puddle of disappointment.

No, just stroll into your local wax shack and ask for one or more of these repressed Arhoolie LPs by name. Any of the abovementioned titles will provide countless hours of enjoyment as they spin on your superb looking machine. Plus the album covers are simply exquisite sights to behold, every last one suitable for framing.

But if you do decide to dive in please don’t neglect the superb work of Lightnin’ Hopkins. He’s arguably the most well known name of the bunch, though that fact doesn’t make him any less worthy; he’s also arguably the greatest. No matter if you’re a longtime devotee of the form or just blues-curious, if you’re a vinyl collector desiring to extend beyond the confines of rock and pop these LPs are an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste. And Texas Blues Man just might be the best of the bunch.


This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text