Blues on My Mind
Senior editor Michael Hall on researching blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins.
texasmonthly.com: You have previously said the best thing in the music world to come out of Texas is the “rural blues, gospel, and folk music that came out of East Texas from guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins … ” What makes this music the best thing in your mind?
Michael Hall: Those guys, especially the rural blues and gospel musicians of the early twentieth century, created something absolutely original, music that wound up influencing anyone afterward who ever picked up a guitar or banged on a piano. You can still hear the power of the music on those old scratchy records—it’s emotional, true, and inextricably wound up with the lives of the people who played it.
texasmonthly.com: How have East Texas musicians Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, and Lemon Jefferson influenced today’s music in Texas and beyond?
MH: They were some of the earliest to do what they did, especially Jefferson, and so everything that comes after was influenced by them. You can hear the future of rock and roll in Jefferson’s playing—the rhythmic drive on the lower strings, the melodies on the higher strings, while he sings verses in between his guitar lines, just like they do in clubs all over the world today. Hopkins followed what Jefferson did, though he did it with rhythm sections and dirty electric guitars—you can definitely hear rhythm and blues and rock and roll in his playing. Johnson was a master of the slide guitar, and everyone from Ry Cooder to Eric Clapton is indebted to his playing.
texasmonthly.com: How did you discover Hopkins’s music?
MH: I first got interested in country blues when I was just out of college, and I listened to a lot of Lightnin’ then. Unfortunately, I never saw him play live.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve described Hopkins’s music as “country blues,” and “blues.” Tell us the difference.
MH: Country blues was the first blues—just a guy and his guitar. He had to be a one-man band, playing at dances or parties, and his playing was usually idiosyncratic and unique to him. When electrified instruments and rhythm sections came along, country blues became electric blues, or just plain blues, and it often became predictable and, especially compared to its forebears, really boring.
texasmonthly.com: Hopkins often stole or appropriated others’ songs, recording them as his own under different names. Was this common practice then?
MH: It was a different world—there was no huge recording industry, nobody got rich playing music, there were no music-business lawyers patrolling East Texas. A bluesman was an entertainer, and he did what he had to in order to make a living—borrowing songs, stealing when he needed to. Some guys would take more popular musicians’ names just to get some gigs. And it was all okay. They weren’t so oriented to the song, the word, the copyright. They were all about entertaining.
texasmonthly.com: Hopkins was often “cranky” to those he knew and those he played with (he seemed to be without close friends), yet his peers respected him. Why is that?
MH: I think ultimately people respected all he had been through and weren’t about to call him on some of his meanness and crankiness. They also thought he was a genius, an original, and that always buys plenty of leeway.
texasmonthly.com: What’s the best album to listen to for getting a good feel for Hopkins? The best video or movie?
MH: There are so many albums out there, so many compilations of his stuff, but you can’t go wrong with a five-CD set from JSP Records that collects his first 126 songs. If you want to just start with one, go to Arhoolie Records, which has several compilations, probably the best of which is The Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins. A great video to see is The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, a short documentary from Les Blank.
texasmonthly.com: What’s something you’d like to have found out from Hopkins if you’d been able to ask him?
MH: I would have asked him about Lemon Jefferson, whom I’m a big fan of. There’s only one picture of him, not that many recorded songs, and he died young. What was he really like?