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. The iconic Lightnin’ Hopkins.
In the process, he rendered the title of ‘Bluesman’ redundant by making it seem remarkably narrow as he weaved his way through the multicoloured tones of it with a guitar under his arm, shades on his face and refreshments not too far away.
When he was a boy in the 1920s he watched Blind Lemon Jefferson play at a picnic in 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 spirit and storytelling more so than meticulous musical detail. It is this ‘gather around’ style that makes the life-affirming Les Blank movie, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, really sing.
In Centreville, Texas, Hopkins is a hero who has time for everybody and throughout the film, he performs everywhere from park benches for an audience of two awestruck young lads to drunken BBQs, as he celebrates the simple joy of being alive amidst a windfall of floating half notes and harmonica howls.
In truth, there are many scenes throughout the 1970 movie where he describes what the blues is. In fact, he made a living being more illuminating about the darkly guarded art form than most. However, this is the only one where he actually says the words. Naturally, after his enigmatic intro, he tells you the ways of the blues in song.
With his own inimitable style, he left a huge mark on the scene that followed with everyone from Townes van Zandt, Blaze Foley and stars beyond the locality like Keith Richards. As Hopkins said himself: “People have learned to strum a guitar, but they don’t have the soul. They don’t feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I’m killing myself to tell them how it is.”
Sadly, Hopkins passed away in 1982 at the age of 69. And while he may have lamented, “the last of the blues is almost gone, and the ones who doin’ it now got to either get a record or sit around me and learn my stuff, ‘cause that all they can go by,” the blues certainly lives on his records and timeless clips like the one below.