Po Lightnin': Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues

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Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues
By Alan Govenar
Chicago Review Press, 368 pp., $28.95.

With the dedication of a state historical marker in the Third Ward where he lived and played, Lightnin' Hopkins' name and music has gotten a bit of a boost lately.

Long overdue, many would say, and this full-length biography by Govenar (Texas Blues) provides an invaluable companion to all those records on dozens of different labels in telling the story of the life and career of perhaps the city's greatest musical export. And import: Hopkins moved to Houston in 1945 and stayed until his death in 1982, so it's not surprising that the city itself is a character, with lots of references to locations, clubs and institutions.

And though some blacks had referred to it as "Heavenly Houston" in the late '30s for the opportunities it afforded for advancement, Hopkins was always cognizant of the racial divide and problems that could occur, even long after white audiences had thoroughly embraced him. Govenar mentions an interview with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who told about his dreams as a child of the '50s to move to Texas because "that's where Lightnin' Hopkins was from."

That his performance style and stage patter would differ between, say, a Third Ward juke joint the size of a living room vs. a stage at Rice University - where he shared a 1968 bill with the 13th Floor Elevators - or Fitzgerald's is a crucial point that Govenar makes. Nevertheless, Hopkins' ability to improvise lyrics on the spot - mentioning current events, his feelings at the moment or even addressing people directly in the audience - were unparalleled among bluesmen.

The author also posits the theory that Hopkins could have been a much bigger name in blues, albeit for his frequent drinking and gambling, reluctance to travel, and preference for a more country blues style against current trends. Govenar writes that Hopkins "had a perceived danger of unfamiliar places," and would even memorize details about airplane crashes, perhaps calculating his odds of surviving any given trip.

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