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Lightnin's Texas Blues and Boogie

Lightnin' Hopkins
Chris Strachwitz made this photograph of Hopkins during a recording session. It decorates the Arhoolie release Lightnin'!
"People have learned how to strum a guitar, but they don't have the soul. They don't feel it from the heart. It hurts me. I'm killin' myself to tell them how it is." Lightnin' Hopkins criticized musicians he believed were detached from real life in a 1968 interview with the Los Angeles Times. Lightnin' Hopkins saw his popularity come and go, but for five decades he has remained an essential influence for many dedicated musicians and an inspiration to loyal fans.

Hearing Lightnin' Hopkins on the radio in Los Angeles changed Chris Stachwitz' life. Stachwitz, inspired by Hopkins' music, founded Arhoolie Records to document the spectacular folk music being lost to the growing popular recording industry.

Hopkins treaded the streets of Houston. Two streets were his regular stomping grounds: Dowling Street in the heart of Third Ward where Hopkins lived, and West Dallas Street where he earned money playing guitar.

Lightnin' was born Sam Hopkins in Centerville in 1912. He had two older brothers, but his father died in 1915 when Hopkins was only 3 years old. Sam Hopkins rambled around the churches and beer joints of Leon County with blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson and his own larger-than-life cousin Texas Alexander. Both men had a lasting impact on young Sam and his music. Hopkins would sit in the shadow of Blind Lemon Jefferson at church socials and play along on his home-made guitar. Jefferson later invited Hopkins to perform concerts with him.

Hopkins came to Houston in 1950 to try to earn his living playing music. A woman made arrangements for a record label scout to hear Hopkins play in a Houston bar. He was invited to Los Angeles where he made a series of recordings for Aladdin Records. He was paired with pianist Thunder Smith for several recording sessions. His flashy nickname Lightnin' natuarally came naturally out of the partnership with Thunder Smith.

Hopkins didn't rehearse his songs; he lived them. He played day in and day out and made up songs about things he experienced in his neighborhood or witnessed on TV. When he went into the studio he recorded whatever came into his mind.

Stay tuned/more to come.


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