A MUSICAL GRANDPA MOSES, Mance Lipscomb spent half a century singing and playing for black audiences in his hometown of Navasota before being discovered and recorded by white musicologists in 1960 at age 65. Although he is widely considered a bluesman, Lipscomb preferred to call himself a “songster”; his repertoire of some 350 songs included ballads, rags, waltzes, polkas, and hymns. His music helped him endure the poverty and adversity that were a given for Southern blacks of his era. He was almost as admired for his front-porch philosophizing (“Once you do Right, Right’ll come back to ya”), much of which is preserved in his oral autobiography, I Say Me for a Parable, published by collaborator Glen Alyn in 1993.
He was born Bodyglin (sometimes spelled Bowdie Glenn) Lipscomb on April 9, 1895. Mance, short for Emancipation, was a nickname. When he was about fourteen, his mother bought him a guitar for $1.50—three days’ pay in the cotton field.
For most of his life he was a farmer first, playing in public only for Saturday dances. In 1922 Jimmie Rodgers invited him to go on tour; he declined.
A staunch family man, Lipscomb was married to the same woman for 62 years. He helped raise 23 children, only 1 of them his own.
When fledgling producer Chris Strachwitz and fellow blues fan Mack McCormick arrived in Texas in 1960, they wanted to record Lightnin’ Hopkins, but he had just left for their home state of California. Word of mouth led them instead to Lipscomb. An impromptu songfest, recorded around the kitchen table, became the debut release of Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records.
The album made Lipscomb famous. In 1961 he left Texas for the first time to appear before an audience of thousands at the Berkeley Folk Festival. He went on to work with a who’s who of musicians, including Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, and the Grateful Dead. Fans included Lyndon Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra, who persuaded his own label, Reprise, to record Lipscomb.
In 1970 he starred in A Well-Spent Life, a documentary by Les Blank. In it Lipscomb demonstrates his use of a pocketknife as a slide; renders “Big Boss Man,” “Motherless Children,” and other tunes; and recalls segregation (“Mule die, they buy another one; nigger die, they hire another one”).
Despite his fame, Lipscomb remained poor. A rare extravagance was his dentures, stamped inside with a guitar in gold. He died in Navasota on January 30, 1976.