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The Roots of "Lightnin" Hopkins

Added on by The Vinyl Exam.

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Like many of you, I love reading the liner notes of old blues albums. These tend to be stories written by someone involved in the production of the LP or, occasionally, by a music journalist or critic of the day. The stories are historical, funny, and almost always insightful. And many are worth sharing. 

I recently bought The Roots of "Lightnin'" Hopkins from Originals Vinyl in San Francisco. The album was recorded by Samuel Charters after a long hunt for Lightning, and it was initially released in 1959 on the Folkways label under the title Lightnin' Hopkins. The version I have is a 1965 repress by Verve Folkways and it sounds great. I especially love the story behind this album, so much in fact that I decided to reproduce it here for your enjoyment. Below, you will find the story written on the back of The Roots of "Lightnin'" Hopkins by Samuel Charters. It's a story about finding a nascent blues legend, getting him a guitar, and a bottle of gin. 

It is hard now, looking back on it, to remember that when this album was recorded Lightnin' Hopkins was almost unknown to the folk world. A Few of us who had been collecting blues records had some of his old releases and he had stopped recording, and it had been three or four years since anyone had seen him. A cook in the French Quarter in New Orleans told me that Lightning was his cousin and gave me a Houston address for him; so I made an effort to find him every time I went through Houston. Finally, I decided to hang around Houston until I'd found him. He hadn't recorded for some time and I was writing The Country Blues so it was important to locate him to talk to him for the book, as well as to try to record him again. 

Lightning was going through a difficult period, and he was had to locate. He wasn't working anywhere; he'd even put his guitar in pawn. I slept on cushions on the floor of another collector's - Mack McCormick's - floor and we tried to find Lightning in Houston's Dowling Street section. Lightning was lying very low, and no one told us anything that was of help except a pawnbroker who had the guitar. His files had an address for Lightning that turned out to be a large ramshackle building in the middle of a littered patch of open ground. A small boy sent us from there to Lightning's sister; she sent us on to his landlady, and she sent us on to two or three bars where she though Lightning might be. Lightning still didn't turn up, but we were noticed as we drove through the neighborhood. I had an old green Chevrolet coupe that was easy to identify. Mack had to go to work the next morning, but I went down on Dowling Street, and at the first red light a car pulled up beside mine and Lightning rolled down the window and asked me if I was looking for him. 

Lightning and I talked on the street corner for a moment and he decided that he could do some recording for me that afternoon if I could get some kind of guitar. He had a friend with him and the three of us drove around for an hour trying to find a store that would rent us an instrument. When we finally found an old accoustical guitar in a pawn shop Lightning stopped in a music store for some strings and in a liquor store for some gin and we went to the shabby room he was renting in the back of a small wooden house not far from Dowling Street. I asked him questions about himself as we drove, but he said very little, obviously uncomfortable and very distrustful. Despite this, however, we were able to work together, and we did an album in his room. He sat in a worn chair near the bed, I set up the recording equipment inside the door. Lightning was completely unfamiliar with long playing records and I had great difficulty explaining to him that two sides of a record meant more than two songs, but it had been some time since he'd done any singing and he was anxious to begin recording again. Before he finished he'd emptied the bottle of gin and begun to think back over some of the disappointments and the unhappinesses of his life. He finally seemed to forget that the two of us were in the room with him and the blues took on an emotional quality that Lightning was caught only a few times in his years of singing. I was as tired as he was when he finished and we realized that the light was fading in the window behind him.

For the first few weeks after the record was released I was worried about the response to it! Some of the folk blues enthusiasts I'd played it for had disliked it. They didn't think he sounded like Leadbelly. The blues was still so little known to the urban folk audience that only a handful of self-conscious folk blues singers were accepted as performers. It was the jazz audience and the jazz magazines that first began writing about the record, but they were only a few weeks ahead of the folk magazines, who after their first confusion, realized that Lightning was one of the great contemporary folk artists. I was living in a basement in Brooklyn during that summer and people kept dropping in to see if I had any other pictures of Lightning or any material that hadn't been included in the album. Within a year Lightning had begun singing at folk song concerts in Houston and there were nine Lightning Hopkins records on the market. His career as a folk artist had begun.

I worked with Lightning again a few years later, and we both laughed at the afternoon we'd spent together, as we drove to the recording studio. "Who would have thought it would come to all this," he said, shaking his head. He looked just the same as he had when I'd first met him. He was still as thin, still as intent looking, but then he'd been poor and worried, living in a shabby rooming house, his clothes worn and a little out of style. As we drove to the studio now, he'd just gotten back from a concert tour of Europe. He was going to appear at Carnegie Hall the next night; then he was going to fly back to Houston where he now lives with his wife in a home he's recently bought. He was wearing a fashionable suit and expensive shoes and there was a sense of self-satisfaction and quiet pride as he talked about what he'd been doing and the places he'd played in recent months. In some ways he hadn't changed at all, but in others I felt with his new success he has finally found, at the age of 52, some stability and a new maturity in his life. 

Of all of Lightning's many recordings I still find this one, his first long playing record, his most exciting. There was an intensity to the blues, a freshness to pieces like Blind Lemon's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," and a robust vigor to the up tempo numbers like "Come And Go Home With Me." He'd done most of them before for his old 78s, but it had been some time since he'd sung them, and it had been years since he'd worked without a heavy rhythm section accompanying him. He's recorded most of them again but on this first afternoon there was an excitement at finding something in them that he'd half forgotten. It may have been that he was finding something in himself, as well, that he'd almost forgotten, and that was to give his life a new meaning and a new direction at a moment when he'd begun to think that his career had ended.

- by Samuel Charters, courtesy of Folkways Records