I just wrapped up Alan Govenar’s biography on one of my favorite bluesmen, the mysterious Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins. Despite a personal songwriting style – Lightnin’ songs sometimes simply described his day, though with a blurred line between fact and fiction, meaning confirming the facts can be a challenge. And while Govenar concedes the fact that virtually nothing is known about Lightnin’s pre-music career beyond being born to a sharecropping family and spending some time in jail and on a chain-gang, a vivid and amusing portrait is painted of Lightnin’s career helped by insights from collaborators including fellow musicians, producers and managers.
Perhaps because of the lack of knowledge of Lightnin’s early years and musical influences, Govenar provides a tremendous amount of a context for Houston’s Third Ward and black communities to describe the world Lightnin’ the musician grew up in. He describes Houston’s housing segregation from its roots and links that to how it affected Lightnin’s suspicious and private nature and how differently he would perform for his respective black and white audiences. And Govenar works to correct a few Lightnin’ myths – emphasizing this country blues artist lived the vast majority of his life in urban Houston, and properly reframing Lightnin’s ‘rediscovery’ by white folk and blues fans in the sixties. While he was little known to white audiences in the forties and fifties, his records sold well with black audiences and he was a minor celebrity in Houston’s Third Ward, where he performed late shows in smoky juke joints each weekend. These rowdy performances full of back and forth banter with members of the crowd incorporated into the show differed starkly from his more subdued performances at folk festivals and liberal arts colleges in front of hushed young white crowds. Constantly jumping between styles, making up lyrics on the spot, touring with unrehearsed backing bands and rearranging songs at will – ‘Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ change’ was his advice to whoever was backing him that night – he’s unquestionably the most talented and entertaining off the cuff improviser the blues has seen.
There are plenty of priceless anecdotes – from ‘I don’t mind playing with white boys but we gotta drink first!’ to Lightnin’s intense fear of flying and utter disregard for any conventional business practices of the music industry. Particularly in the second half of the book, where Govenar interviews J.J. Phillips, who wrote a novel inspired by her affair with Lightnin’, and David Benson, who served in a tour manager-like capacity, the book livens up to transport you to Lightnin’s world of gambling, drinking and fierce independence. Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, is the best source of memories from Lightnin’s recording sessions, while a massive discography at the end helps bring some clarity to a catalog of someone who would record for anyone willing to pay him $200 per song. While hardly essential reading, the book is well-researched and any fan of Lightnin’ or the rise of Texas blues musicians in the 1960’s will certainly enjoy.