LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS: His Life and Blues Alan Govenar Chicago Review Press (2010)
Alan Govenar, author over the decades of many books on Texas music (among other TX subjects), has finally had his Hopkins bio published. It is a tidy tome with an extensive discography (surprisingly so!) that does a reasonable job with its subject. The first two chapters deal with Lightnin’s early years as a Black artist in rural Texas, his various influences on his musical development (both direct and indirect, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Texas Alexander) and other experiences as a burgeoning blues man. That is essentially where the information on Hopkins as a successful Black recording artist ends. From there, on, the focus is on Hopkins as a “folk” musician with a new, White audience (similarly to Josh White, Brownie & Sonny, Gary Davis, a.o.) rather than as a Black performer with a Black audience.
Chapter Three is entitled “Rediscovery” and begins his history as an icon for White folks such as we, often mistakenly being billed as the “last living country blues” artist, a period when he took up the acoustic guitar again at the request of the “folkies”. THAT is when the detail gets thick, what with that younger audience and movers-and-shakers still being above ground! [Chapter Seven is essentially a report on his affair with J.J. Phillips, the author of the novel MOJO HAND (based on same) that breaks up the continuity of the story being told – it would have been better as an appendix after the discography.] While there is interesting stuff here, the surface is not really broken on Hopkins, his life, and his music. Sam Hopkins was one who carried barriers, cultural and otherwise, external or self-generating, and who was often creative and self-aggrandizing in his story-telling. We, along with the author, are too much outsiders to his culture and its time: therefore, this is a good book, but not a great book – it does fill in some holes in our knowledge*, but leaves one unsatisfied regarding his early days. One glaring error I picked up on is the mis-attribution of the founding and editorship of BLUES UNLIMITED to Simon Napier-Bell. Said individual is a still-living journalist/manager/producer and never was the editor of the magazine. The individual intended was the late Simon A. Napier, co-founder of BU with the late Mike Leadbitter in Sussex(!), of all places, in the early sixties. Amazon/US has it (hardback) for a little over $19 (US), plus post.
*The Mack McCormack/Paul Oliver falling out of many decades past has left Texas too poorly researched as folks back in the day said, “Stay away… that’s Mack and Paul’s territory – wait for their book.” While said book was extensively written, it’s yet another unfinished “desk-drawer publication” mouldering away unfinished. Sad, really, for they had the goods for a really interesting book.
Peter B. Lowry
pub: THE BLUES TIMES; No. 211/Oct 2010; p. 10.