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Down in Houston

[ Regional/Texas ]

Down in Houston

Bayou City Blues

By Roger Wood

A lovingly detailed portrait of the Houston blues scene, past and present.

2003

Look Inside

In the clubs, ballrooms, and barbecue joints of neighborhoods such as Third Ward, Frenchtown, Sunnyside, and Double Bayou, Houston's African American community birthed a vibrant and unique slice of the blues. Ranging from the down-home sounds of Lightnin' Hopkins to the more refined orchestrations of the Duke-Peacock recording empire and beyond, Houston blues was and is the voice of a working-class community, an ongoing conversation about good times and hard times, smokin' Saturday nights and Blue Mondays.

Since 1995, Roger Wood and James Fraher have been gathering the story of the blues in Houston. In this book, they draw on dozens of interviews with blues musicians, club owners, audience members, and music producers, as well as dramatic black-and-white photographs of performers and venues, to present a lovingly detailed portrait of the Houston blues scene, past and present. Going back to the early days with Lightnin' Hopkins, they follow the blues from the streets of Houston's Third and Fifth Wards to its impact on the wider American blues scene. Along the way, they remember the vigorous blues community that sprang up after World War II, mourn its decline in the Civil Rights era, and celebrate the lively, if sometimes overlooked, blues culture that still calls Houston home. Wood and Fraher conclude the book with an unforgettable reunion of Houston blues legends that they held on January 3, 1998.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Learning about Lightnin': The Soil beneath My Feet
  • Chapter 2: Digging the Roots: A Cultural Context
  • Chapter 3: Third Ward: From High-Class Joints to Honky-Tonks
  • Chapter 4: Fifth Ward: Blues with a Creole Accent
  • Chapter 5: The Duke-Peacock Legacy: Taking It to the World
  • Chapter 6: Beyond the Wards: Yesterday and Today
  • Chapter 7: Blue Resonance: Reunion and Reflection
  • Appendix A: Catalogue of Interviews
  • Appendix B: Bayou City Blues on CD: Selected Annotated Discography
  • Appendix C: Bayou City Blues Map and Legend
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Photo Captions
  • General Index
  • About the Author and the Photographer

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In an era in which some musicologists have perpetuated the generalization that blacks don't make blues music for black audiences anymore, there are exceptions. The Texas city of Houston has long maintained a tradition of blues performance as an African American community event--especially in the near-southeast area known as Third Ward, as well as in the near-northeast location called Fifth Ward and other places.

For the latter half of the twentieth century, Houston has been home to what the sociologist Robert D. Bullard has identified as perhaps "the largest black community in the South." More to the point, as David Nelson says in an editorial in Living Blues magazine, the city is also the birthplace for "some of the most significant developments in modern blues." What follows is an account, based on over 150 hours of tape-recorded oral histories and various other types of fieldwork and research, of what I have learned over the past two decades about the relationship between these two facts. At the start of the twenty-first century, the indigenous blues culture of Houston is still alive. This book seeks to explain, to some degree, how and why.

Especially in the twenty-five years or so following the end of World War II, Houston was a place where African American musicians created some of the most influential blues-based music ever played, ranging from the down-home sounds of Lightnin' Hopkins to the more refined orchestrations of the Duke-Peacock recording empire and beyond. In more recent times, the local blues community has had somewhat less impact on the rest of the world than before, but it has remained vital despite--or maybe because of--being largely self-contained. Now the fourth largest city in America, Houston today is one of the few places anywhere in which a person can regularly, practically any night of the week, find venues where blues is performed by talented practitioners who grew up with the music and call it their own.

The text that follows introduces you to people and places I have come to know, mainly during the 1990s, while researching the roots of Houston blues culture in black communities. These individuals and their old neighborhoods have graciously helped me to understand some of the past and present realities of the Bayou City blues tradition. I have made countless friends, and I have really enjoyed the live music. To paraphrase Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly), if you ever go to Houston, you'd better do right--and hear some of it for yourself. Meanwhile, let me tell you what I've come to understand--and how my life-enriching experience with local blues people all began.

The videotape opens with his face staring straight into the camera, with some type of urban street scene reflected in both lenses of his dark glasses. He sings about how he hates to travel on "this lonesome road." He's seated on a chair at a dirt-worn sidewalk interchange in a fairly ragged-looking neighborhood. He's got a folded hand towel draped over his right shoulder and an acoustic guitar perched on his pulsing right thigh. Using thumb and fingers, he's picking out a country blues tune. The black-and-white footage shifts as he continues to play. An indoor scene: Four middle-aged to elderly black men huddle around a square wooden table as others look on. Taking their turns, they slap down rectangular domino slabs and score. The camera dwells momentarily on a twenty-dollar bill and a stogie butt resting at table's edge. All the while, Lightnin's guitar can be heard as he fingerpicks solos, that heavy bass thumb-work never missing a beat. The video cuts back to the solitary musician out on the street. His voice conveying a world of weariness, he intones the final lines of an improvised song: a vow, repeated, to keep on traveling till he finds some place to go, followed by the simple observation that it's lonesome when you go down such a road by yourself. He drags the thumb across the strings to provide a final flourish, dominant chord resonating as the film cuts to another scene.

Now he's inside, maybe in the same cafe where the domino players congregated in the earlier footage. There's still not a female to be seen. Men sit and stand, drinking from long-necked bottles, and stare at the lone guitarist. Lightnin's on a chair in front of some old venetian blinds, rocking gently as his knees flex in and out. This time he's not singing but just playing the same guitar--really working it, making it moan and cry, with measured bursts of boogie bass connecting the viciously precise solo passages. As his left hand runs the frets while the right deftly plucks separate strings, I see with my own eyes what previously I had only heard on records.

And as the imagery lingers beyond the click to stop the videotape, I more fully understand some things I had read or been told. For instance, this wiry fellow in the porkpie hat may well have been (as Wolfgang Saxon asserted in the New York Times) "the greatest single influence on rock guitar players," the eccentric master of a blues idiom all his own. And as Robert Palmer put it (in another article for that same newspaper), this man "was a blues poet, if there ever was one."

I also intuitively grasped something else: Though Lightnin' Hopkins might sing convincingly of a need to travel, that gritty street corner and that little cafe sure looked like places where he felt right at home.

***

Like thousands of other people from elsewhere, I immigrated to the city of Houston in 1981, drawn here by job prospects and the region's booming economy. The sprawling metropolis an overwhelming unknown, I first did the same as many newcomers: moved into a suburban condo, learned by trial and error which freeway ramps and back streets offered the best bets against predictably jammed daily commutes, and absorbed an image of the city based mainly on its depiction in local and national media.

My direct observations and experiences were then limited, for the most part, to those areas immediately surrounding the Southwest Freeway, that massive strip of concrete connecting Point A, my residence, and Point B, my workplace. If Houston initially suggested to me some sense of place, it was that freeway. Daily I negotiated its lanes, driving over and through a city that seemed only an ever expanding amalgam of similar shopping centers and malls, apartment complexes and subdivisions, office parks and skyscrapers. To my naive perception, local culture defined itself mainly via stereotypes generated by two dominant industries, petroleum and NASA, while perpetuating some conspiracy of pretense regarding the mediated image of the urban cowboy.

Anchored in Houston, nevertheless, by a satisfying professional position and the regularity of my paychecks, I sought refuge in my lifelong habit of listening to recorded music as a form of strategic retreat. Given my feelings of estrangement from the new environs, what I needed most was something real to provide solace and escape. Sampling previously collected LPs and making regular forays to local record stores, I began to find that solace mainly in blues and gospel music, most of which was performed not by twenty-something males like myself (at that time) but by African Americans my father's age or older. As has been the case with countless other fans before me, the more of the good stuff I heard on records, the more I had to hear: T-Bone Walker, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, The Dixie Hummingbirds. Each discovery satisfied a need--and made me want more

This music, I increasingly realized, was the honest source of so many of the classic rock-and-roll and soul tunes with which I had come of age in the 1960s and 1970s. It formed the primal headwaters of a cultural river I had been swimming in for years, only I had started out farther downstream, where some contamination and dilution were now evident to me. So, as if craving the mythic purity of the springs of origin, I gradually immersed myself in classic blues, fairly oblivious to the antithetical current of 1980s mainstream music culture. And being a newcomer to this huge and hustling city, I found that immersion to be particularly satisfying. As the singer-songwriter and former resident Townes Van Zandt (1944\-1997) once told the author Kathleen Hudson, "If you can't catch the blues in Houston, man, you can't catch them anywhere."

Granted, my knowledge of the music remained limited mainly to what I could glean from various liner notes and LPs. But at the time, that was enough. I figured that as long as I had my job, my stereo, and my blues records, I could survive down in Houston.

Then something happened that would eventually change my life. On the first day of February 1982, I read an article in the Houston Chronicle announcing the death of, and local memorial service for, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins. As it recounted the life of "one of the most extensively recorded blues artists" (the man the musicologist Samuel Charters was quoted as describing as "the last singer in the grand style"), I was struck by one simple sentence: "Yet, he remained Houston's own."

Remained Houston's own? I couldn't fathom the notion. What did this postmodern city--which seemed to me a huge, heartless network of concrete, glass, and steel--really have to do with the earthy poetry and acoustic guitar of Lightnin' Hopkins? What neighborhood here could still legitimately claim Lightnin' as its own?

I had earlier been aware that this legendary Texas bluesman was somehow historically associated with Houston, but to me it was abstract knowledge, only a bit of trivia from some ancient past. And it had never occurred to me, during my previous eight months holed up at home listening to blues records, that he was still here, that the great Lightnin' and I were actually fellow citizens of the same city for a short while.

Just as I had previously known in my head that blues was the fundamental American roots music but had only just begun to understand it on a deeper level, I was now struck by a fact I had vaguely stored in my brain but had never before fully confronted: Lightnin' Hopkins, the epitome of the real-deal blues man, was a Houstonian. Reading that newspaper account, I now understood that following his birth in Centerville, Texas (on a date given in the Chronicle and elsewhere--including Hopkins' tombstone--as 1912, but which the researcher Bob Eagle has determined to be 1911, based on his scrutiny of the 1920 census records and the Social Security Death Index), he had first come to the Bayou City in the 1920s and had been here for most of his sixty-nine (or seventy) years. His art, his blues were part of Houston history--a part that suddenly intrigued me, as it seemed so distant from my daily reality here.

I had two immediate impulses: first, to go buy another Lightnin' Hopkins record, and second, to learn more about the connection between this artist and this city. Where had he lived? Why was he here, of all places? And more broadly, what blues did this city still have to offer that I hadn't yet discovered in my limited observations from the freeway (or been informed of, until now, by the local media)?

Returning to that newspaper article, I copied down the information about the memorial service for Lightnin' Hopkins: "8 P.M. Tuesday in Johnson's Funeral Chapel, 2301 McGowen." Then, after fetching the city map from the glove compartment of my car, I searched the index for the name of the street. To my intense surprise, I located the 2300 block of McGowen just southeast of downtown, about a mile from the main campus of Houston Community College, where I served as a rookie faculty member.

Still an outsider to the area then, I had no sense of that campus being part of any neighborhood, in the traditional sense. It was just a freeway exit-ramp destination, a cluster of buildings where I parked my car, entered, and did my job before departing each afternoon for the suburbs. Now I was jolted to imagine what kind of community might lie just beyond my classroom walls, a place that Lightnin' Hopkins (I would later learn) had long called home.

The following evening I somehow lacked the energy or the nerve to drive back into that unknown neighborhood and attend the service for Lightnin' Hopkins. I immediately regretted that missed opportunity, and the passage of years has only made my passive mistake more apparent. It would have been an honor to bid farewell to such a distinguished musician. And who knows what I might have learned had I been there when people who knew enough to care gathered to say good-bye to a true blues genius?

But the news of Lightnin's death had already suggested something valuable to me--two concepts that I would gradually come to understand much more fully over the years: First, the city I now called home, and more particularly the neighborhood where I worked, had a specific blues heritage about which I was largely ignorant, despite my supposed affinity for the genre of recorded music called blues. Second, blues reality was perhaps accessible as something other than historical performance removed in time and place and captured on record, something other than the larger-than-life status of a few major stars such as B.B. King, whose massive touring productions I had witnessed. Blues reality, even in the 1980s, still encompassed people like Lightnin', who had lived in what the newspaper called "his tiny apartment" in the working-class community just east of my school.

One afternoon about a week later, motivated by curiosity, I drove past the funeral chapel on the corner of McGowen and Dowling and on into the heart of a neighborhood I would later come to know as Third Ward. Surveying the rows of simple wood-frame houses, decaying storefronts, and abandoned buildings, I thought, "This is not the kind of place where one would hope to find an artist who had graced the stage of Carnegie Hall." I struggled to reconcile two contrasting images, one of this "master" whose virtuosity had been celebrated at the nation's finest performance venues and the other of some scruffy fellow who reportedly had regularly walked these humble streets.

I wondered about this place and the people who lived here. How many of them had known Lightnin' personally? What did they think of him? Did they still embrace his blues? Did his legacy survive among them? I had an urge to stop the next old "bluesy-looking" guy I spotted coming down the street and ask him about Lightnin' Hopkins, but I dared not.

It would be years later, following additional formal education and the gradual digestion of more records, books, and magazines, before I would finally begin to talk purposefully and directly to the people of Third Ward about their blues.

My decision to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Houston both postponed and enhanced any fieldwork I would ultimately do. The delay was necessary during the seven years I carried the dual responsibilities of both a full-time teacher and a graduate student. My opportunities for extracurricular pursuits were somewhat limited, to say the least, as a result of that load. However, it was also during that same time period that I was first exposed to the formal study of folklore, which made clear to me the value of conducting historical inquiry via tape-recorded interviews with everyday people. This introduction to folkloristic methodology was an essential prerequisite, I now realize, for the serious blues research I would eventually undertake.

After completing my dissertation (which focused on, among other issues, the transformation of historical reality into written text), I graduated and decided to apply my skills to a subject that appealed as much to my heart as to my head: the blues. Inspired especially by the notion of collecting oral histories from real people, from living texts as it were, I began to seek out and interview members of the African American blues community of Houston. This independent work has proven to be as fulfilling as any course of study I could ever pursue at a university.

Now, years later, I find deep satisfaction also in the numerous personal friendships with blues artists (and their families)--relationships that often have evolved past a common interest in the music history to include other elements of human experience. In addition to club gigs and jams, recording sessions, television studio performances, music festivals, radio interviews, special programs, and major concerts, I have attended birthday parties, church services, dental appointments, weddings, hospital visitations, funerals, and burials with many of these dear friends. From them I have learned much about Houston, about blues, about life and death.

The writing in this book is intended not only to document the experiences of these individual Houston blues artists, most of whom first came of age as performers in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s, but also to achieve some synthesis of disparate elements to reach a viable definition of Houston blues. What are its dominant characteristics, especially in relation to those of other centers of blues culture such as Chicago or Memphis? Why is Houston blues--despite the depth of its legacy, past and present--generally not as widely recognized as that from these other cities? Where does it come from? Why is it still here at the start of the twenty-first century? Where is it going?

A lot has changed for me since I first moved to Houston in 1981, not the least of which is some enlightenment regarding local culture. Now proudly at home here, I have learned my way around some of the fascinating, predominantly African American neighborhoods that remain largely obscure to those who speed past on the ubiquitous freeways. More importantly, I have learned directly about the lives of some of the most creative and historically significant folks to come from these neighborhoods and beyond: the true blues people of Houston.

Let me tell you more about where they come from, who they are, and how and why they're still holding on to the blues. And for some of them, as it did for me, it all seems to begin with Lightnin' Hopkins.

Remembering Lightnin': A Sampler

Joe "Guitar" Hughes, local musician:

Lightnin' was a very good friend of mine. I was aware of him really way before I met him because my stepfather loved Lightnin', you know. My stepfather, he'd sit by the Victrola and play Lightnin' Hopkins tunes and drink his bourbon. And a lot of times I'd see him sitting there crying. But I don't think it was tears of sadness. He just liked the music--and the stories that Lightnin' was telling. More or less, he was living it as he listened. Yeah, Lightnin' really was a storyteller.

Most of his stories came from people around him, the things that were happening around the neighborhood. He didn't write his songs; he made them up as he recorded them, or as he sang them in a club, on the street, wherever.

When I first saw him, it was on the bandstand at a little place called McDaniel's Lounge, off the Gulf Freeway. He was playing by himself, you know. It was just him and a chair onstage, and a bottle of wine on the floor next to the chair. He had an acoustic guitar, with one of those old pickups on it--the way they used to amplify the guitars in those days.

I just sat and listened. I was interested in the guitar and well aware of his presence and a lot of his songs. Matter of fact, later on I would get up on the bandstand and give him a break every now and then. And I would play some of his songs--because I knew most of them then because my stepfather would listen to Lightnin' all the time.

I don't think Lightnin' knew how big he was. And the way he carried himself, he was just like the old guy next door. But actually, at the time, I didn't know how big Lightnin' was. He carried himself just like one of the fellows, so that was the way we dealt with him, you know. I found out later just how important Lightnin' Hopkins really is to blues music.

Anonymous woman, Third Ward resident:

When I was little, Lightnin' Hopkins would sit on the front porch and play his guitar in the afternoons, here in the neighborhood. Once he made up a song about my aunt. She was a real short lady--she wasn't even five feet tall. And he made up a funny song about her. He could do that like it was just natural.

Milton Hopkins, local musician:

Lightnin' was my cousin. I knew him but never played with him. He was much older than me and doing a different style of blues from me.

Now I started out playing like Lightnin', you know, the country-style blues. But it didn't last long. I always wanted an electric guitar, way before I got one. I enjoyed hearing all the different orchestrations and stuff that was going on. . . . I liked this style over here that had more flair to it, had more class. So I went for that. That's how I got to be where I am now--knowing all these different parts, playing various kinds of songs. I never was a blues purist, I don't think. I think of it all as just music. But blues is the only thing I ever had any success with, right on down to today. . . . That guitar hanging up on my daddy's back porch--which he didn't want me to touch--was my only way.

Chris Strachwitz, California-based producer:

After I came to this country from Europe and was first turned on by New Orleans jazz, I fell in love with blues. And the record that knocked me out more than any other was by a man named Lightnin' Hopkins. When his voice came at me over a radio station in Los Angeles, it just took me away from this planet. I had to meet this man named Lightnin'.

My friends at school back then were listening to people like Doris Day or The Four Freshmen. . . . Saccharine slop was all over the radio. Then all of a sudden, here was a guy, Hunter Hancock in L.A., who was broadcasting a program called Harlem Matinee every afternoon. And I got totally addicted to it. He would play low-down blues. . . . This was before rock and roll. This was powerful stuff to me.

Here was a man with just his guitar singing in this lazy, relaxed style. To somebody like me--who could barely speak English--I felt terribly inferior. But I said, I've got to meet this man Lightnin' Hopkins. That was really the reason I started the [Arhoolie] record label.

I finally got to Houston in 1959, after my friend Sam Charters sent me a card saying "I found Lightnin' Hopkins. He lives in Houston, Texas." You see, we didn't have any sense of where he might be, even if he was still alive. This was totally out of our realm of romanticism or whatever. Even the magazines in France were discussing: Where is Lightnin' Hopkins from? Is he a Mississippi singer? Or is he from Georgia, or Alabama? Anyway, this was like holding the Holy Grail for me, when Sam Charters sent me this postcard.

So I went there that summer in 1959, because my sister needed her car driven to Albuquerque. I said, "Hell, that must be almost halfway there." When I got there, I took a bus the rest of the way. I remember staying at the YMCA in Houston, and then meeting this fellow Mack McCormick who introduced me to him.

We went to visit Lightnin' Hopkins that afternoon. He was cool as could be, smoking his cigar. Said, "Oh you're from California? Well, come and listen to me. I'll be at Pop's Place tonight." So we went out there to Pop's Place, and he saw us walking in. He was singing a low-down blues about how his shoulder was aching, and how he could hardly get to the job that night--but he rhymes it up all perfectly! About the chuckholes in the street all covered by water, and his car hardly made it and all. Then he sings, "Whoa man, this man come all the way from California"--pointing his finger at me--"just to see Po' Lightnin' sing."

He would just improvise constantly, that whole evening. There were only a few people in the place. It was like what I would now imagine is the role of a griot in Africa. He was simply the community poet who would tell people what they like to hear. And he would argue with the woman in front of him, "Whoa, woman, you in the red dress!" And then he would just go into this musical tirade about her, and she would yell back at him! It was a real two-way communication. It was like a church service in a totally nonchurch atmosphere.

I just felt that somebody had to document this man in those beer joints. . . . I was simply a fan. I just liked certain sounds. I was absolutely enamored of Lightnin' Hopkins. I thought, "This is the nastiest down-home blues I ever heard." And that's all I wanted to hear.

Robert "Skin Man" Murphy, local musician:

That was the summer of '61 that I was on tour with both Lightnin' and Clifton Chenier. But until Lightnin' died, off and on Lightnin' would come on little jobs that we'd have like on Sunday afternoons and things. He'd come by and sit in. Whenever we played out in Third Ward, they had a little club there, was made from a two-story house. I've forgotten the name of it, but it was right around the corner from where Lightnin' used to live in Third Ward. And Lightnin' would come around, and the three of us would have a ball! Me and Clifton and Lightnin.

I think I was one of the very few drummers who could get along halfway decent with Lightnin'. Lightnin', he didn't like too many drummers. Uh-uh. . . . People wouldn't dance for Lightnin'. They'd just crowd around, get all up on the tops of things, and sometimes he'd even make up songs right there.

Do you know I "traded fours" with Lightnin' Hopkins? Fours--you know what I'm talking about? Solos, four measures, yeah. He'd play something: dee-da-dee-da-dee. And then I'd do: ba-bomp-pa-doo-ba. We worked out a little thing like that. I know I'm one of the very few drummers could do that with him.

Rayfield Jackson (aka Houston's "Guitar Slim"), local musician:

I first met Lightnin' in 1953. I was about seventeen. We eventually played together on some gigs. He taught me a lot and always called me his little cousin, which we ain't no kin. He taught me very much about the guitar and old blues, and I was a youngster. I was living in Third Ward, and he was living in Third Ward at the time. And I used to go over to his house when I'd get out of high school, and we'd play on his guitar and laugh and talk. He would show me all he knowed, and a lot of times on the weekend, I'd go on a gig with him and sit in, play right along with him.

He lived on--we used to call it "Short Gray"--right off of Gray and Live Oak. He used to live in a little shotgun house. And when I'd get out of high school I would go over to his house, before I would even go home, and he'd say, "C'mon in, little cuz. I know why you're coming here. C'mon in." And we'd start playing them guitars. I'd play there for about an hour or so, and then I'd go on home. Mama knowed where I'd be going, when I'd get out of school, so she didn't fuss at me.

I played some gigs with him, sure did. Right here in Sunnyside, up and down Cullen [Blvd.]--back when Cullen was a shell street. It was called Chocolate Bayou Road then, wasn't no Cullen. And it was a shell street, wasn't no pave. And we was playing in little old joints with about three or four tables in them, and when you got five or six people in there, you had a crowd. That's right.

And we played a little gig here in Third Ward, on Live Oak and McGowen. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was a small joint. And we played on Live Oak and Delano, another little joint. That would be on the weekends, when I'd be out of school. And I'd go in there and play a little while, sit up there and back him up with the guitar, what he taught me how to do. And it wouldn't be anyone but him and I. Wouldn't have no drummer, just two guitars--and Lightnin' stomping his feet. That's it. He'd have them big old shoes on and one of them Big Apple hats, big old wide hats with a feather stuck up in it--looked like a peacock.

His guitar playing was his own style of the blues. And his songwriting was the same thing. . . . I would say Lightnin' is important to American music because of the era he came up in, for black America, the style that reaches back to the old days while being modern too.

Houston, and Third Ward, recognized Lightnin's music, very much so. The younger people don't know anything about him--no more than what they hear the older people talk about. But the older folks, they'll never forget Lightnin'. He played for the Queen of England! And at Carnegie Hall! So he was well recognized.

Young people should be taught about the roots of the blues and where it came from. And one of the main rooters was Mr. Lightnin', Sam Hopkins. . . . He had a very nice personality--always had a smile on his face, with all that pretty gold in his mouth.

Steve Earle, singer-songwriter, former Houston resident:

Lightnin' had a lot of gold in his mouth. He figured it was a good investment.

Kinney Abair, local musician:

He'd make up songs and never play them again, at least not exactly the same words. . . . And Lightnin' was a comic, a real joker, onstage too--always cracking wise.

Roy Gaines, Los Angeles-based (Houston-raised) musician:

My mother played Lightnin' Hopkins religiously when Christmas came, from like late November, when they would start fixing food for Thanksgiving and playing records that they liked. Sometimes it might be gospel, if it would get close to Sunday. But most of the time it was Lightnin' Hopkins.

Texas Johnny Brown, local musician:

I had some times with Lightnin'. As a matter of fact, we did a couple of things together. They had a little recording studio out Washington Avenue called ACA. . . . And we used to go out there, and he'd sit and play. Wouldn't be nobody, just he--and I'd be there with him. Sometime I'd play with him, and sometime I wouldn't. And I remember Lightnin' used to take a board, put a board down underneath his feet. And if he didn't have a drum, he'd just pat his feet real hard--on that board--and play right along with it. It always amazed me how he did it, because his timing was his own timing as far as rhythm is concerned.

He was a wonderful person to know, kind of easy spoken. Despite what some folks say, he really wasn't a mean person. He was a person who didn't talk a heck of a lot--till he got to making a song, you know.

Later on, when I came back off the road, he was working at a little club at the corner of Dowling and Cleburne. And I used to get off of gigs, or some nights when I didn't have a gig, and I'd go by there and we'd sit down and laugh and talk about different things. He'd ask about some of the places I'd been, 'cause I'd been on the road then for awhile. Lightnin' himself really didn't like the road that much. He liked to stay home.

And we spoke about Mrs. [Lola Anne] Cullum [Houston talent scout for Los Angeles-based Aladdin Records] a few times, because back in the forties and early fifties she worked with both of us, when I was with [singer and pianist] Amos Milburn and right after.

I remember a time when Mrs. Cullum used to take her husband's shirts, his white shirts, and give them to us so we'd have some shirts to go on the gig, you know. Her husband was a dentist--and had good shirts. And I remember one time Lightnin' was putting this song together, and they had a time arguing. I can't remember exactly the title of the song, but anyway, there's a part in there where he says, "The woman was lit up like a neon sign," you know. But he always said, "lit up like a Nehi sign," and he and Mrs. Cullum used to argue back and forth about that.

I knew about him even before I started professionally because I'd heard some of his records. Couldn't miss him on the jukebox. He was pretty heavy on the jukebox around Houston--and all over. And when I finally came to Houston myself, I met him, finally ran up on him.

Lightnin's style of music, the feeling is different. You might say that the environment was different. He told his stories just as he lived them, and just as the way he was, the way he saw things. And these were the things he ran upon, the things that happened to him, so that's what he wrote about. It's the same with me, but it's different in the terms of music, the tonality and the theory. It's a little more progressive, the blues-type thing that I did. He was more old style. The type of guitar that he played was like from my dad's era more than from mine. . . . He played that finger guitar, and played it in the natural keys, like the E-natural, A-natural, or D-natural. You know, where they could play that finger guitar and could carry a melody right along with the bass line.

He was a person that mainly did it solo, everything he did. I can't remember a time that he really had a full band together. He enjoyed doing it himself because his way was his way. And his timing--if his timing was off, he didn't have to worry about nobody saying nothing about his timing being off or however it was. He just played it on his own terms. And that's the way it was with Lightnin'.

Roger Wood's articles on Houston's blues, zydeco, and jazz history have appeared in numerous books, periodicals, and CD liner notes. A Houston resident, he has taught literature and writing at Central College (Houston Community College System) in Third Ward since 1981.

James Fraher's photographs have appeared in many publications, including on the cover of Living Blues magazine and on over one hundred music recordings. He is the author of Blues Is a Feeling: Voices and Visions of African-American Blues Musicians. In 1996, he was given a Keeping the Blues Alive Award by the Blues Foundation. He resides in Grayslake, Illinois.

2004 Rounce & Coffin Club Western Books Exhibition

Good Brick Award
Greater Houston Preservation Alliance