Monday, April 5, 2021

The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins


Lightnin' Hopkins (left) and Mance Lipscomb

Lipscomb, Hopkins, and Billy Bizor

Director Les Blank

Lightnin' Hopkins

Bronze statue of Hopkins in Crockett, Texas










THE BLUES ACCORDING TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS             B+                                    USA  (31 mi)  1970  d:  Les Blank    co-director:  Skip Gerson

You know, the blues is somethin’ hard to get acquainted with, like death.                   —Lightnin’ Hopkins

The intersection of Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and rebel outsider documentary filmmaker Les Blank is an interesting one, as Hopkins typically never trusted white people based on his Jim Crow experiences, as segregation in Texas created two unequal societies, one black and one white, where Hopkins had spent his life hustling and scuffling around the backwoods of impoverished black communities where he was allowed, like Indians on the reservation.  John Lomax Jr., son of the famous folklorist who travelled the south recording blues artists, worked occasionally as Hopkins’ agent, and was known as the only white man he ever trusted.  According to Mack McCormick, American musicologist and folklorist who steered Hopkins to the Smithsonian Folkways label in 1959, which largely targeted white audiences, switching his electric guitar for acoustic, basically resurrecting his career, but Hopkins was wary, having been burned by recording studios before, claiming white people routinely cheated him, “Like a lot of blues singers, they were concerned about what white people could understand.  Blues was their private language.  They didn’t think white people were interested in what they had to say.”  The late 50’s and early 60’s ushered in the folk era in café’s and coffee shops across the nation, developing a new audience on the radio airwaves, where Hopkins along with Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, became influential postwar blues artists due to the extraordinary authenticity of their performances, where a blues revival was just around the corner, coinciding with the most idealistic period of the Civil Rights struggle.  Blank didn’t make much of an impression on Hopkins after the first day of shooting, demanding the rest of the money up front and sending him home.  But Blank grew curious about a card game they were playing, opting in, quickly losing a boatload of money.  The next day, borrowing money from the crew, he lost more, where his misfortune seemed to delight Hopkins, thinking maybe he wasn’t so bad after all, so he stuck around for several more weeks to finish the shoot, where it was mostly due to being such a poor gambler.  Though Blank made several music documentaries, at only 31-minutes it’s relatively short, shot with Skip Gerson, but it was never really about the music, as he was primarily interested in the surrounding circumstances that produced the music, winner of the Gold Hugo for best documentary film at the 1970 Chicago International Film Festival.  Returning to his rural boyhood home of Centerville, Texas (population 836), Hopkins makes the rounds, beginning with an impromptu performance out on an old dusty farm road, playing with fellow Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb on guitar and Billy Bizor on harmonica, The_Blues_Accordin__to_Lightnin__Hopkins.avi YouTube (4:13).  Bizor literally breaks into tears over a lost love in Lightnin' Hopkins & Billy Bizor - Where She Used to Lay (1967) YouTube (2:18).  Never appreciated during his lifetime in the Texas Bible belt where he resided, largely because he sang about women, fighting, gambling, and prison life, tapping into his own life and experiences, his gift for endless stream-of-conscious lyric invention was his greatest asset, creating sorrowful songs found on slave or sharecropper plantations, prison work fields, infamous chain gang highways, not to mention endless juke joints.  Hopkins reflected the life of the poor, common black person in his songs, and he fostered awareness of their plight, rarely ever photographed without sunglasses, among the most prolific of all blues artists, recording somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 songs.  

Les Blank is a filmmaker that offers intimate and inspiring glimpses into the lives of people who live at the periphery of society.  According to B.B. King, “I’d hate to think of not having a Lightnin’ Hopkins.  The blues would never have been what it turned out to be because he was a great player.  He didn’t put sugar on anything, he just played it,” The greatness of Lightnin Hopkins YouTube (11:16).  Hopkins influenced his cousin, Albert Collins, Albert King, and Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy, all of whom influenced Jimi Hendrix, who supposedly had stacks of Hopkins records in his collection.  The height of his musical artistry likely occurred in the late 40’s and early 50’s playing electric guitar, almost exclusively heard by black audiences, when his work was copied and stolen by other musicians, recording works like Lightnin' Hopkins-My Baby's Gone YouTube (2:49), Lightnin' Hopkins, Movin' Out Boogie YouTube (2:18), or Lightnin' Hopkins-Lightnin's Boogie YouTube (2:40), offering riffs that would later become staples by white rock ‘n’ roll guitarists like Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan who revered him, yet, obviously, were paid substantially more than Hopkins ever was, who only recorded when he needed the money, where $50 up front in cash was typically what he was paid.  The backdrop of Centerville, Texas offers viewers insight into his own environment, seeing children at play, a black rodeo, modest living rooms, and an outdoor barbeque where the establishment even receives screen credit in the introductory title sequence.  Hopkins was a child protégé of Blind Lemon Jefferson, an early Texas bluesman who played the circuit, basically anyplace where he could get paid, with Hopkins and his family moving to Houston at an early age, spending most of his life living alone in small rooms in dingy apartments in Houston’s Third Ward, living in rooming houses, playing in various bars and clubs and juke joints, rarely going on the road, gambling much of his money away, forcing him to often perform and record on a borrowed guitar that seemed to have a hard time staying in tune.  Born on a farm outside town, his life was a reflection of hard times, as one of his grandfathers was a slave who hung himself out of misery, while his father was a cotton farmer who was killed over a card game when Hopkins was three, so he spent time picking cotton out in the hot sun during his youth, or driving a mule, forced to live under the constant humiliations and intimidations of living under Jim Crow, while also working on a chain gang during his twenties that left his ankles permanently scarred, telling 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.  Yet he represented the epitome of the blues, a guy with shades, a cowboy hat, wild, unkempt hair, gold teeth, an unlit cigar, and a half-pint of whiskey in his back pocket.  Early on in the film his drinking is a bit excessive, but Blank doesn’t edit this out, as it’s simply part of who he is, stubborn, ornery, showing signs of self-destruction, where it was often difficult to impossible for other musicians to play with him due to impulsive chord changes, where he would inevitably say, “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to.”  But the man shows flashes of brilliance in how easy it is for him to play the blues, where he performed live music for almost 60 years, where there isn’t an ounce of pretension or commercialization in his music or his character, rarely performing a song the same way twice, always tinkering, adding nuance or slight variation, knowing he is a genuine free spirit, unique and original, where there’s no one else like him.

Hopkins is never onstage in this film, and is never seen with an electric guitar, yet performs a surprising number of songs sitting wherever he happens to be, as nothing appears pre-staged or rehearsed, all happening extemporaneously, much of it out in the open air, seemingly as natural for him as breathing, where he’s simply in his element playing music, Lightnin' Hopkins - How Long Have It Been Since You Been YouTube (2:49), where the simplicity itself exudes an air of nobility, something untainted and pure.  He is greeted by long-lost relatives in Centerville, halfway between Dallas and Houston, one of whom calls him Little Joey, though his given name is Samuel John “Lightnin’” Hopkins, attends a dance party backyard barbeque where he plugs his acoustic guitar into an electric amplifier, giving it some kick, accompanied by Bizor as a washboard player, where young people get up and dance, where we hear some whooping and shouting.  This feels like the life blood of East Texas, shot in the late 60’s when the region was undergoing its own brutal apartheid, where there was a “hanging tree” in front of the courthouse where many black men were lynched so school children could see the open remnants of white supremacy, with Hopkins telling several stories throughout the film, many of which are incorporated into his songs, becoming one of the most evocative films about the blues, as it’s all about the singer and the authenticity he brings to his music, making this part of his living legacy, all the more poignant as filmmaker and subject have both passed on.  When Hopkins sings, “I’m gonna get my shotgun and be a slave no more,” it’s evokes a painful era in our national history, yet also feels autobiographical, as he brings legitimacy to the subject.  Les Blank had a luckier path, born into privilege, yet falling in love with the music of New Orleans, in particular Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, both legendary figures of Mardi Gras.  Branching out into the hinterlands, discovering the musical revelations of Clifton Chenier, King of the Zydeco in Lafayette, Louisiana, the Cajun lifestyle and black Creole life in the Louisiana Delta, Mance Lipscomb from East Texas, also seen in this film, and the Tex Mex and Conjunto stylizations of Flaco Jiménez from San Antonio, Texas, making films about all of them, becoming an anthropological examination of the music from the region, which Lightnin’ Hopkins typifies, showing us the South as conventional media rarely sees it.  Blank’s willingness to go along for a ride, taking many detours along the way, offers unique insight into his primary subject, whose name is synonymous with the blues, basically a walking encyclopedia of songs from the region, transforming local folk cultures into art, with cinema offering immortality, as these subjects will forever be examined across generations to come.  Driven by the folk and blues revival of the 60’s, Blank and his camera crew sought out Hopkins, willing to sleep on hard floors to bring this music to mostly college educated whites on the edge of the counterculture searching for alternative pathways.  Hopkins is like an African griot, offering wisdom and knowledge through oral history, having survived the hard times, where his unique vantage point demands attention and perhaps a bit of reverence, like a revered elderly relative, continually peppering them with questions about their personal experiences, hoping just a little bit might rub off.  With no narration or traditional storyline, the film is a rambling curiosity, where the camera points with a roving eye, with Hopkins rarely talking about himself, but he’s a wealth of stories told through his music, becoming shared intimate experiences, providing a strong sense of place, never really seen in white neighborhoods, with Hopkins adding his own personalized flavor and touch, offering rare insight into black experiences in America, where the blues is a way of living through it.  Saving the best for last (look at that wild hair), this final sequence reveals what may as well be the essence of the blues, Lightnin' Hopkins plays the Blues YouTube (5:18).                         

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