Behind the ‘Texas Outlaw’ music movement was one humble numen who inspired them all – the man whose music was such a kaleidoscopic encapsulation of humanity that he made life seem like a fizzing effervescent tonic dropped in a puddle of time. In the process, he rendered the title of ‘Bluesman’ redundant by making it seem remarkably trite. As you may have guessed from the headline, that man was the legend, Samuel John Lightnin’ Hopkins.
In the life-affirming Les Blank movie, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, there is one scene where he is perched on a raised bench, sporting a golden shirt and a cream woollen cardigan, clearly prised from a sheep that took enormous pride in itself. He has his guitar tucked under his arm and an attitude so sanguine that he was probably giving off a light spring breeze. Sat alongside him is his trusted Centerville, Texas companion Billy Bizor. Bizor is dressed all in orange and staring down dotingly at his monolithic mouth organ.
In front of the two workaday Michelangelo’s of blues music are two young white boys sat cross-legged in the grass. It is unclear what exactly this congregation is, how it came about, or essentially what will happen. Through modern eyes it seems inexplicable – ‘where are the ticket stubs, security and stage separations?’ – music simply doesn’t happen in that natural and organic way anymore. However, Hopkins thought nothing of spilling his soul out for a spellbound audience no matter how big, small, old, young, rich or poor; he simply dished out his talent like the warming balm of the sun on a cold winter’s day. And before these two awestruck young lads, Hopkins tells the tale of Mr Charlie’s Rolling Mill…
… “Once in the country there was this little boy and he stuttered,” Hopkins casually begins. It is a story of a pariah who left home after it became clear his mother couldn’t understand his stammering ways. Out on the road with a meagre flower-pack full of possessions and a spiritual sack-full of woes, he wandered his tired legs up to a dingy outbuilding called The Rolling Mill that belonged to Mr Charlie. The boy stammered his way towards asking Mr Charlie if he had a place for him to stay. Mr Charlie told him he could stay in his Rolling Mill shack down the road so long as he sees to it that his stove never catches fire. The boy agrees and Mr Charlie tells him he never wants to hear from him again unless there is ever a fire. One day the boy is in the Rolling Mill and the place catches aflame. He races his way up to Mr Charlie’s house to tell him about the blaze. As the boy struggles to spell out the problem in his failing words, when Mr Charlie stops him and says, “Look here boy, if you can’t talk it, then sing it,” at which point Lightnin’ Hopkins strums his guitar and bursts into song…
The story is one that forms an allegorical mirror to the tale of the blues. When those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. It is this encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of the blues that elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel to exultation.
Like the boys’ stammering struggles, the song of the blues was born out of the oppressed voice of suffering. Whilst one does not bring any comforting solace to the other, it is testimony to the unconquerable spirit of those that suffered, and those that continue to do so, that this torment was, and is, transfigured into something beautiful. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ captures this essence and in his songs. He celebrates the simple joy of being alive amidst a windfall of floating half notes and harmonica howls. With his cognizance of pain and the smiling equanimity with which he sequestered the sombre hue of sullen blue in favour of life’s spectrum of exuberant tones, he helped spawn the Texas Outlaw music scene that comprised of masters like Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt. He was Van Zandt’s hero and it would seem near enough anyone who picked up a guitar in The Lone Star State was mystically coaxed into it by the weaving fate of Lightnin’.
The fated life of Sam Hopkins began on the 15th of March 1912. His father was also a musician but died when Hopkins was just a child. When he was a boy in the 1920’s he watched Blind Lemon Jefferson play at a picnic on Buffalo, Texas, and the young keen-eyed Lightnin’ was so stirred up that he set about making his own ‘cigar box’ guitar. It was this marriage of inspiration and seemingly predestined fate that led Hopkins to go ‘hoboing’ through the entire state of Texas playing at picnics, dances and juke joints. His wayfaring ways instilled a carefree style based on sonic spirit and storytelling more so than meticulous musical detail.
In 1946 he was signed up to Aladdin Records and he took this carefree spirit into the studio along with his cousin, Texas Alexander, making his first record of many in a near-unrivalled prolific career. Throughout his life, this desire to play, perform and record was as constant as a coastal shelf. To Lightnin’, unlike just about every single other musician, it would seem that his only goal was simply to play. In fact, playing didn’t even seem like a desire; when there was a guitar around, playing it simply came as natural to him as the rain comes to a cloud. And there was always a guitar around, just lying there like some beat-up appendage of the man himself, as natural to Hopkins as a cape to Superman.
His devil-may-care delivery and view of life may have been flung onto record a little too raucously to ever catapult him to stardom, but it was this same blissful approach to the blues and performing that captivated a scene of which he was king. Those that followed in his footsteps recognised the unflinching eulogy of life in all its guises that blossomed forth from his six-string and smiling horse-Sinatra of the south tones.
Up until his death in January 1982, Lightnin’ Hopkins was a man who lived to play and played to live, infusing the joys and hardships of one with the other. His brand of music is perhaps best summed up by the writer James Baldwin who said: “The man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”