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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Legendary Lightnin' Hopkins

On a windy winter morning in January, 1959, I was driving along Dowling Street, in Houston, Texas. I stopped at a red light and a car pulled up beside mine. The window was rolled down, and a thin, nervous man, wearing dark glasses, leaned toward me.
“You lookin’ for me?”
“Are you Lightnin’?”
“That’s right.”
“Lightnin’,” I said, “I sure am.”

So begins the story Sam Charters tells in the original notes for the classic Folkways blues album, Lightnin’ Hopkins (FS 3822/SFW 40019).

Lightnin’ Hopkins was born Sam Hopkins in 1912, in Centerville, Texas. Often considered to be one of the greatest country blues singers of all time, he reached legendary status in his own lifetime—a status probably augmented by the fact that almost nothing was known about him. He was also nearly impossible to find, even as he continued putting out records after his first in 1947.

Charters had been trying to track down Hopkins for five years. When Lightnin’s popularity waned in the late 1950s (Rock and Roll was taking over, and though he made some attempts at keeping up, the new style did not suit him), it became even more important to Charters to record Lightnin’ doing what he did best—sing the blues accompanied by nothing else but the “subtle rhythm” of his acoustic guitar. The trouble was finding him.

Charters, following the trail of Hopkins’ pawned electric guitar and asking nearly everyone in Houston of his whereabouts, was eventually found by Hopkins. They went back to Lightnin’s furnished room on Hadley Street the same day to record what would become a classic in just one session.

Samuel Charters’ giddiness in this letter to Marian Distler, co-founder of Folkways, is palpable. The long search was over, and the recording that resulted from it would become a game changer—an album of such warmth and intimacy, charm and wit, that it would endear Hopkins to not only hardcore blues aficionados, but to a new generation eager for authenticity. Hopkins went on to become an instrumental figure of the blues revival of the 1960s.

Written the day he recorded Hopkins in a “shadowy room with a bottle of gin on the floor,” the freshness of this letter allows the reader to share Charters’ excitement. The only option then is to pop in Lightnin’ Hopkins and imagine what it must have been like to sit in the room on Hadley Street and share that bottle with a legend.

Listen to samples of this classic recording:

This letter is a part of the Correspondence series in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. To learn more about this collection, click here.

Photograph taken by Diana Davies, Lightnin' Hopkins performing at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

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