IT’S ONE OF THE ALL-TIME GREAT Lightnin’ moments: Austin City Limits, 1979, less than three years before he died. He was 67 and wearing a bright-blue leisure suit with rhinestones that sparkled in the TV lights and a beige fedora cocked at a 45-degree angle on the side of his head. He looked like a fabulous old pimp. He played a Fender Stratocaster in front of a rhythm section that included bass player Ron Wilson, a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Lightnin’ had been playing live music for almost sixty years, though his performances the previous decade had been rather unpredictable—flashes of brilliance competing with the age-related tendency toward sloth and crankiness. This show was no different: great riffing, uninspired noodling, blues clichés, bizarre stage patter, and angry glares at the bass player, who gamely tried to keep up with the impulsive chord changes.
The moment came halfway through “Ain’t No Cadillac,” when, after doing some soloing, Lightnin’ decided to do some more. For some reason he had a wah-wah pedal, and he either stomped it too hard or it had been turned up way too high, because his amplifier let out a high-pitched squeal—a loud, intense, and not unpleasant sound that lasted about three seconds. At first he appeared taken aback, but he kept playing, and a satisfied smile crossed his face. This late in his career, there were very few surprises. He may not have planned that particular outburst, but like all the other notes he played and noises he plucked, he was proud of it. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he said, and jammed the pedal down again. Then he went on to craft a solo that began quietly and cascaded through a fall of bad notes, bringing the song to an early, crashing end, dragging his rhythm section down with him, as he’d been doing for years.
Lightnin’ Hopkins was ornery, stubborn, flashy, and capable of great inspiration followed by obstinate and calculated destruction. In thirty years of recording, he created a body of work as wide, deep, and maddening as anyone’s in American music history: some five hundred songs, or maybe six hundred, or maybe seven hundred. Nobody knows, because Lightnin’ would record for anyone who waved a $50 bill at him. He might play and sing something fierce and new, but just as likely he’d redo a song he’d done the day before, changing a line or two because he felt like it. Or he’d record a song by one of his peers and call it his own. Ultimately, the words didn’t matter. It was the sound of his voice—a deep drawl that was so lonely and sad it seemed to come from another existence—and his loping, finger-picking guitar style, which sounded like the rolling, rough cotton country between the Brazos and Trinity rivers where he was raised.
By the time he died, in 1982, he had become one of the great bluesmen, up there with Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. But no one knew a whole lot about him, beyond the fact that he was from East Texas, that he spent most of his life living alone in small rooms in dingy apartments in Houston’s Third Ward, that he gambled much of his money away, that he often performed and recorded on borrowed guitars, and that he seemed to have a hard time staying in tune. Part of that was his own doing: Lightnin’ told colorful stories about his past, and as he got older he amplified his Po’ Lightnin’ persona, a guy always mistreated by women and misunderstood and abused by everyone else. Part of it was the mythmaking of fans who saw him as the epitome of the blues: the guy with the shades, gold teeth, unlit cigar, and half-pint of whiskey or gin in his back pocket.
To find the real Lightnin’, you have to first go back and listen to his amazing catalog of songs. You have to find the liner notes from long-out-of-print albums and the interviews he did when he was “discovered” by white people almost fifty years ago. You have to talk to the people who knew him, chauffeured him, produced him, played with him, and tried desperately to keep up with him. The picture they paint isn’t always pretty, but the real blues seldom are.
SAM HOPKINS WAS BORN ON A FARM outside Centerville, in Leon County, on March 15, 1912. He would later say that one of his grandfathers, a slave, had hung himself in his misery and that his father, Abe, a cotton and corn farmer, was killed over a card game when he was three. Sometime in 1915, his mother, Frances, moved him and his four older siblings to nearby Leona. Sam picked cotton in the brutal sun. It was a hard life, made worse by the constant humiliations and intimidations of living under Jim Crow: men being called “boy,” no matter how old they were, and not even being able to buy a Coke in local stores (blacks had to make do with strawberry soda).
He told many stories of how he started playing the guitar; in the best one, he nailed a piece of plank to a cigar box and strung it with some screen wire. One of his brothers, Joel or John Henry, gave him lessons, presumably on a six-string guitar, and Sam also banged on the piano and organ in church. When he was eight, he went to a Baptist picnic in nearby Buffalo, where the famed blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, of nearby Freestone County, was performing on a platform. Jefferson traveled all around Central and East Texas, playing on street corners and at picnics and dances, drawing crowds wherever he went. He was a one-man band, pounding the rhythm on the low strings, the melody on the high ones, singing and answering the words with notes and the notes with words. Standing in the crowd, Sam began playing along with the