Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Notes: Lightnin' Hopkins, His Life and Blues by Alan Govenar

Alan Govenar's biography of Lightnin' Hopkins (Sam Hopkins, 1912-1982) is set apart from others in its genre, not so much by brilliant research and writing - but by the overwhelmingly idiosyncratic nature of the subject! There is no doubt that Hopkins is ranked highly amongst the aristocracy of twentieth century American blues musicians, indeed he is a legendary figure whose playing has influenced many succeeding guitarists. He has proved though, to be a difficult person to quantify, assess, or even to research, as so much of his life is hidden behind myths, contradictions, ambiguities and uncertainties. Given the problems involved in this project, it is not surprising that so little has been written about Po' Lightnin in the past, but yet despite that Govenar manages to piece together a pretty good book.

The first obstacle that Govenar attempts to overcome, is the sheer lack of coherent information about Hopkins' early years. Sources close to the man are tight lipped, while official records are poor. He makes several concrete discoveries, unearths a legion of myths - but still is left with significant gaps in his narrative. One of the issues faced is that Hopkins' was a raconteur who invented a mythology for himself as part of the package he sold - a less sinister parallel of Robert Johnson's remarkable method of self-promotion. This means that deciphering which (if any!) of Hopkins' stories about himself were true, partly true, completely false - or totally muddled versions of all three, is next to impossible!

The broad outlines of his career though are clear, a rural Texas bluesman who learned his trade from the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, he grew up in the segregated South, determined to escape the cotton-plantations of his childhood. Leaving home at a staggeringly early age, he became an itinerant bluesman, and served at least one term in the penal system. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the mid-Twentieth century however, Hopkins did not join the great migration to the Northern Cities such as Chicago; despite many performances in the North he never felt at home there, but retreated whenever possible to his own corner of Urban Texas. Another departure from standard blues mythology is that Hopkins never stopped gigging, only to be "re-discovered" by archivists and 1960s Blues-revivalists. Hopkins rather, played consistently throughout the 40s and 50s, in the South - before being idolised by a new white audience, mostly of folkies (whose stereotypical misreadings of only 'authentic' rural Southern blues, he was only too happy to pander to!).

Govenar supplies a lot information about sessions, backing musicians and Hopkins' particular contribution to Blues. He makes much of Hopkins' famous deviation from straight 12 bar blues into random changes which were impossible to predict and hard to follow (this point is re-iterated to the point of tedeum, however!). Govenar's interest is in the minutiae of the recording process, dates, times, producers, songs, fees and contracts - whereas my interest is far more consumed with locating the man and the music within the social, political and historical dynamics of his times. As such we learn that Hopkins named and shamed a notorious white share-cropping owner/farmer Tom Moore in his vaguely disguised "Tim Moore Blues". However we are left without adequate exploration of the nature or consequences of this social protest. Likewise with the advent of Civil Rights, the most significant era for African Americans in Dixie since Reconstruction - Hopkins views and choices as to how to respond to this burgeoning movement are almost ignored. Govenar's book could have been improved by reference to a wider canvass.

What is not ignored is Lightnin' Hopkins extraordinary, and rather extreme character. I admired the way in which the author was open to both the man's flaws as to his triumphs. It is so often the case that biographers are drawn to their heroes critical assessment is lost and hagiography triumphs. Hopkins emerges from the pages of this book as a complex man, who despite his alcoholism, unusual domestic arrangements, and massive insecurities, carved out a fabulous niche for himself as a master purveyor of a particularly Texan form of blues. Everything that sprang followed on from here, from Albert Collins, to Billy Gibbons to Stevie Ray Vaughan owes a debt to Lightnin' Hopkins.

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