If the west begins in Fort Worth, the South begins in East Texas, in the rich bottomlands along the Colorado, Brazos, Navasota, and Trinity rivers, where cotton has been king, it seems, forever. The blues came from cotton — from the work songs and hollers that tens of thousands of slaves sang in the fields and from the hymns they sang in church. (Slaves made up almost one third of the Texas population in 1860.) And while Mississippi gets most of the credit for creating the blues, with native sons like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B. B. King, Texas is where some of the earliest blues pioneers lived and played — including the man who would become Johnson’s teacher, though the two never met.
To see where the blues came from, take a weekend, get in your car, and cruise the back roads of East Texas to the birthplaces and haunts of ten Texas guitarists and singers who changed the world. By and large, these ten weren’t just bluesmen; musicians in rural East Texas had to be versatile. They had to play to the whims of black and white folks on the streets of towns like Navasota and Wortham, and they had to keep the dancers happy at Saturday night “suppers” that went on into Sunday morning. They called themselves songsters or musicianers, and they sang and played spirituals, vaudeville tunes, work songs, prison songs, English ballads, local sagas, children’s songs, and eventually, the blues. Most were born into unimaginable hardship and degradation. Two were blind, two were named Lemon, two spent time in jail for murder. One is still alive and playing. They are all linked — by style, blood, or friendship, but mostly by place. These were men of the land, farmers and sons of farmers, and the songs they sang were their versions of the songs they grew up hearing and playing. They changed the words to fit their lives, and they made something new.
To find one birthplace of the blues, start near the birthplace of Texas, Washington-on-the-Brazos, about seventy miles northwest of Houston. Here, just outside Navasota, amid the long, gently sloping hills and meadows along Texas Highway 105, Mance Lipscomb was born on April 9, 1895 — like Texas, on the banks of a river, the Navasota. The son of a slave, he was named Bodyglin Lipscomb but later chose the nickname Mance, short for “Emancipation.” He was a farmer most of his life, usually a sharecropper, giving as much as half of every crop to his landlord. Lipscomb started playing the guitar as a small boy and developed a rolling fingerpicking style for the Saturday-night suppers and dances where he had to be a one-man band, playing rhythm and melody as well as singing. He played slide with a pocketknife — which wowed Muddy Waters when he saw Lipscomb play — and sang folk ballads, pop songs, spirituals, and blues in a gentle voice that he had never heard recorded until he was “discovered” in 1960 by blues fan Chris Strachwitz and folklorist Mack McCormick. Strachwitz recorded Lipscomb in the singer’s kitchen and put out the album as the first release of his new label, Arhoolie. That led to a show in front of thousands at the Berkeley Folk Festival (the first time Lipscomb ever left Texas) and a second career sharing stages with the likes of Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, and the Grateful Dead. Fans included Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, LBJ, and Frank Sinatra — who once arranged for Lipscomb to entertain him, his girlfriend Mia Farrow, and friends on his yacht in the Pacific for two days.
From Navasota, take 105 four miles west, then go north on FM 159. You’re driving through the vast fields of Allenfarm, a former 20,000-acre cotton plantation and prison farm. Lipscomb farmed around here most of his life; one of the area landlords was the infamous Tom Moore, whom Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins sang about in the scathing “Tom Moore Blues” (“Tom Moore whup you, he’ll dare you not to tell”). For years Lipscomb refused to play the song publicly out of fear that Moore would have him killed. About eight miles down the road, right before you get to the railroad tracks, make a left at the sign for Allen Farm Road; you will come across old white houses — some inhabited, others abandoned — and farm buildings, several with the name Tom J. Moore printed in large letters.
Head back into downtown Navasota on 105; at the blinking red light, take a left on FM 1227 and go two blocks to Rest Haven cemetery, where Lipscomb and his wife of 62 years, Elnora, are buried about thirty feet in on the right (he died of heart failure on January 30, 1976, and she followed him two years later). After leaving the cemetery, continue through Navasota on 105 until it becomes Texas Highway 90; stay on 90 for twenty miles to Singleton, and then just outside of town turn north on FM 39. Stay on 39 for about forty miles to Robbins, where you turn east onto Texas Highway 7 for eight miles to Centerville, the birthplace of the mercurial Lightnin’ Hopkins. Like many towns in East Texas, Centerville is a faded crossroads; indeed, the town’s western boundary is the thrumming Interstate 45 (Centerville is halfway between Houston and Dallas, though it got its name from its location in Leon County). Sam Hopkins was born here on March 15, 1912, and started playing the guitar young. In nearby Buffalo the eight-year-old screwed up the courage to climb onstage with his guitar and play along with the famous, imposing blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic. On hearing the racket, Jefferson yelled, “Boy, you got to play it right!” Eventually Hopkins did, playing at picnics and parties while he farmed cotton during the day. In his mid-thirties he moved to Houston, earning his nickname after he hooked up with pianist Thunder Smith;