Lightning Hopkins: A Blues Ghost Story

Lightnin Hopkins

This is a strange tale at best. Back in the late 50s I discovered that there were two kinds of Americans blues singing guitar players, one from kind from the East with precise virtuoso technique who could play in all the keys, who often sang in a sardonic urbane style.

Then there was what one might cal Delta bluesmen, not armed with great facility on the guitar, nothing about them urbane, often with strange notions of how to pitch their voice, gritty soldiers of life who seemed to have lived at the very bottom of life, done a little jail time, worked street corners in Chicago in the snow, played tiny honkey tonk joints in the middle of nowhere, who had really lived an intense and powerful emotional life. They played slide guitar with weird tunings like C in open fifths. Leadbelly had only some of their profoundly expressive sorrow.

The most persuasive Delta bluesmen included Lightning Hopkins, Tampa Red, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker and Skip James. Behind these celebrities of woe were field recordings by convicts, field hands playing on home made guitars in various Mississippi prisons wheezier testaments of sorrow seemed as deeply moving as anyone one had heard out of hell. One admired the dapper virtuosi of the East from Blind Boy Fully through the Reverend Garry Davis; one could be bowled over by the sheer naked ferocity of the Delta style.

The folk movement of the late 50s and early 1960s was a White urban one of kids who had listened to Folkways records. Their idols were Woody Guthrie, Jack Elliot and Pete Seeger. They were ultra political; they knew their cigar smoking enemy in the bosses and the rich of satanic capitalist America. They sang piously about the victimization of the poor by the bosses. It was authentic stuff if a little on the humorless side. It didn’t bother anyone at all that Pete Seeger was the science of New England rich family. Jack Elliot was a Jewish boy from New York and Woody Guthrie wasn’t a saint at all but a womanizer and sometimes even a violent drunk and troublemaker. These young folk virtuosi from Brooklyn were in their guises to themselves prophets of the horrible truth of what nasty industrial America was all about.

Black blues was very different, East or Delta. It was almost never political, never sentimental, never talked much about enemies or dialectics, always focused on exquisite personal pain. In New York one could switch back and fourth between White and Black music without stopping for a moment and realizing that the man of the White musicians of authentic Appalachia wouldn’t have listed to the Black ones much or even allowed them a seat on a bus. Of course there was Jimmy Rodgers who worked with Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin in some great records; well, the yodeling brakeman was in his heart really a Black bluesman who happened to be White and sing in a White Delta style.

Jimmy Rodgers understood what sorrow and ferocious testimony was all about. He was never sentimental and often darkly sardonic. Nobody in the White Folk scene knew what to make of Jimmy Rodgers. That was the sort of music Robert Johnson was supposed to sing.

When I lived in Tangier one of the features of hanging at the house of dionysiac writer George Andrews, the legendary keif master of the Zocco Chico, was to get stoned on the most powerful marijuana in Morocco, follow it with some hashish candies and them sip strong mint tea to flush the marjoun through the capillaries while listening to hours of tamps of Lightning Hopkins echoing passionately through the room. Nothing touched the core of heartbreak more than the slow dirge mournfulness of this man’s low and wicked voice. One could set there for hours or take in the music on the sun deck while watching with a sense of the miracle of mortality itself the red blood orb of the sky settle over the Mediterranean sea. I will never feel again in my life such a profound sense of cosmic compassion and epiphany as I did in those moments.

I wondered what sort of man Lightning Hopkins was as I stared at the water turning purple from the vantage point of George’s building with the rest of his intriguing friends. Clearly from his music Hopkins was one who had suffered ultimate woe, knew what unspeakable loss was, had hungered and despaired about love and felicity as few among us had ever dared to garner or hope for. I imagined some huge darkskinned man who had been immersed in and fathomed at long leisure the very nadir of experience chanting out his testimony like date from Hell, playing his corteges to pain in the shadows while the very walls shivered with the density of his haplessness and the open but invisible wounds of his lacerating anguish. His music and low voice had the static quality of Indian chanting as he wailed in the middle of an indigo sonic eternity.

Hopkins, perhaps as the word got around through the drug world from graduates of George Andrews’ fabled Tangier hospitality, became a byword among the marijuana smokers in the next few years with his searing and ferocious singing and guitar playing. This was a man with such direct access to the spirit he made Freddy, Albert and B.B. King seem cold. He had a fluidity in his playing and moaning that made John Lee Hooker seem motoric and dull. His ironical nickname, Lightning, almost certainly a legacy echoing the lugubrious torpors of the slow spoken character in the old Amos and Andy radio show; Hopkins played the slowest blues one could imagine, as if any more speed than he gave his statements would take away the static and helpless character of these hopeless and despairing cries of the heart.

There was as the word got out about him some fluff on the back cover of his records about his services as an amanuensis to Blind lemon Jefferson in Chicago in the late 1920s. The inference put out by these releases was the he was in some way Jefferson’s disciple. I never found any sign of congress between the styles of these two very different men, one of whom lived in Chicago, the other in Texas; I suspected this was one more fictional biography done in a world where nobody had bothered to collect the history of anybody or the facts about anything.

Did it matter’ Nobody really knew what most blues5en did or didn’t do in their lives. It just wasn’t as important as the table talk of presidents or the supposed erotic life of teen aged film celebrities. No bluesman ever made the Enquirer or the New York Times.

A few years later in the middle 60s I happened to notice that Hopkins was playing at the Limelight, a little hole n the basement on MacDougal Street that featured the sort of talent one didn’t hear about the political White virtuosi at Gertie’s Folk City: Doc Watson, Skip James and Jose Feliciano. They were a different set from Bob Dylan, Dave van Ronk, Danny Kalb and Stefan Grossman. They were as likely to sing a pop tune about honkytonking as a pious condemnation of a factory. One should say that both Bob Dylan and Danny Kalb finally did realize the value of pop. At another time I saw Kalb do virtuosi renditions of Little Richard hits at the Limelight.

I hurried down to the joint, drank a beer with was raw and cheap. The place was almost empty. There was no energy in the few in the audience. Then I saw Lightning Hopkins leave the small back dressing room to the tiny performance space. There was an amp, a guitar and a mike; it was all very bare. I was astonished at the torporous appearance of Hopkins as he walked carefully with the slightly paralyzed amble of one very drink onto the elevation of the tiny stage.

Hopkins was caramel skinned, very thin, of middle high, worse thick dark glasses, a very loud purple shirt, blue shirt, high polished black shoes and a florid gaudy tie. He looked sick not with terrible and eviscerating personal experiences but with drinking too much booze. He had konked his hair; he looked more like an Indian than a Black man, short of like an emaciated Charley Piton.

I wondered in passing as I stared at him whether I had been cozened by the record producers of Hopkins’ offerings,. The front photos had pretreat him as looking like a darkskinned field hand with nappy hair fresh from a day job working for pennies on a plantation. This man looked like a small town pimp. He gave the sparse crowd a big grin, smiling about nothing. I felt a great fatigue in him as he flashed this smile; I felt very powerfully he didn’t fancy being out in front of anyone, singing, or picking out even a few notes on a guitar. He was drunk, and been guzzling for a long while and wanted very sensibly to sleep it off.

Then he went into a set that was basically a wandering improvisation around two instrumental accompaniments repeated without much variation, one a very slow and ruminative style the other a buggy-woogy that seemed more suitable for dancing. He had been a great Delta Austin guitarist; this brassy electric instrument seemed oddly detached in his hands. He went through about eight songs of a very vaporous character, probably routines he had done before and half remembered, smiling all the time as if somebody had given him a birthday present, and paled the electric guitar very coarsely and loudly.

I had the feeling Hopkins was so plotzed his fingers were moving across the fingerboard in a dead way as if he had lost contact with the nerves in his hands. He certainly couldn’t see either the audience of much of what he was doing through the thick dark glasses. Maybe he didn’t want to look. More and more he lacked energy as he went through the set; he seemed as if he were about to collapse. He made the mike do what his voce couldn’t. There was no focus or sense of personal testimony in all this going through ancient motions. With his grin he seemed to be doing his act with a total mask; one felt in his detachment a kind of boredom and hostility that didn’t suggest he was out to amuse much less touch the heart of anyone. Like an old club fight, he wanted to finish a pathetic struggle on his feet and let the judges tell him afterwards in his coercer he had blown the fight.

I talked with Hopkins somewhat at length in between sets in the small dressing room in back for the performers at the Limelight. He was very civil and had good manners; he was very tired and was really as we conversed trying to rally his physical forces for a job he really wasn’t up to. Maybe he was depressed because he was performing so badly. He didn’t remember any of the songs he had done on records that I referred to; I realized very quickly that they hadn’t been so much songs as ideas that came into his head with the same music behind them and left his skull discreetly with a similar lack of formality.

This is the way nearly all Deep South bluesmen worked, even the White Carl Perkins, not varying the musical side of their performance much from improvised song to song. The humorous and sardonic Perkins always remembered the best of his improvisations playing night after night at honky tonks; he was a hoarder of his best lyrical moments Hopkins was different; he didn’t bother much to recall what he had sung yesterday. I think Hopkins was more of a juicer than Perkins. I was less surprised at his boozing style; many of Hopkins’s songs after all had been about cheap wine and gin. Blues in general was not a musical genre one experienced or performed while utterly sober.

Part of the reason for the slowness of Hopkins’ style was that he was improvising lyrics all the time, not even bothering to rhyme occasional, sometimes not even finishing the stanza when he couldn’t think of anything more to say, dredging from his current day and the night before whatever wisdom and memory he could to put into his blues. He wasn’t really a performer who could repeat a routine he had created over and over again as he moved from place to place; he was a raw folk artist that gathered his talent from a new and daily assessment of his woes that changed as his life did.

The pain he had experienced and put into his performance on records if not this evening at the Limelight was real enough; if was intense and ferocious to the point where he couldn’t bring himself to produce it at his whim; sometimes he was just wiped out by his woe and didn’t have any desire to offer it to a crowd of strangers at a gig in a strange city. His way of life gave him an independence that had armed him with that sort of caprice. It also hindered him in any chance for a career as a commercial product; he couldn’t prude at a whim what he had done in the past, a gift most audiences looking for the familiar want. He really was a bluesman who seemed ultimately private, putting up with listeners with politeness since they with equal courtesy garnered him a bare living. Yet if he didn’t get gigs Hopkins could set up anywhere in the street and with his talent earn enough to get by.

Once I realized what Hopkins was about I heard his second set with a different pair of ears. His music and words lived or died on his ability in the moment to generate some inner fire about his personal life. He was deep into the booze now and momentarily had left that pain behind him. It was possible that by the time I got to hear him live he didn’t feel his old anguish anymore. Even though he was no longer entertaining, if so, that was good; I couldn’t begrudge him any relief from his sharp woe like the stab of an ulcer. He was after all older and more sagacious, or at least more accepting and less rueful about his woe.

Hopkins didn’t have a range, didn’t want one, and though he had a good pair of hands wasn’t interested in more than competence technically. He couldn’t fake an afflatus as so many performers do. By the time I saw his singing testimony the man I had admired from halfway across the world didn’t exist. He was too far gone in booze and age to offer it. He had always reinvented his act every day. The Lightning Hopkins I had heard in Tangier was no more.

I never thought about that evening again for forty years. It hadn’t been pleasant. I realized that as a listener I was asking Hopkins to do something almost obscenely intimate with his music and lyrics that perhaps I didn’t have any right to ask for, even if I paid for it and he had once been offering it. Do we really have the franchise because we’ve bought a ticket or have a CD we’ve paid for to know the real inner life of anybody’ Was not there something pornographic abut being introduced to another human being’s pain and woe, yet staying in the shadows more or less invisible’ The culpability of my own hunger made me uncomfortable.

I certainly had gotten an authentic blues experience. There was none of the detachment in Hopkins that one found in more amiable Delta bluesmen accustomed to amusing a crowd, taking the money and going on. Hopkins was more like a medium; either he had the afflatus or he didn’t. With his partiality to flaunting an inner nakedness he didn’t have a clue about how to cheat and fake about what wasn’t there with persuasiveness. It was also true that the dark side of any offering in blues or I one is playing Beethoven is a secret torpor one usually keeps to oneself after the public show is all over with. That’s why some performers often push their faculties up when they are tired with booze and cocaine. It’s not at first that they’re drug addicts; it’s that they’re weary.

Forty years later, when I was closer to my own woe and losses as happens often after a few decades of adult life, I was waking though the system of tunnels in London at Green Park station; I saw and heard what seemed to be Lightning Hopkins play one of his slow and soulful testaments, guitar, low voice, crazy gaudy suite, dark glasses and all. He looked exactly like the Hopkins I had seen and talked to in 1965. I was startled; was I being haunted by the now perished Hopkins in some bizarre way, in of all places, London’

As I got closer to this uncanny apparition I realized the bluesman was almost but not quite lightning Hopkins. He was very thin and of middle height but dark skinned; he was also about twenty five, had been born long after Hopkins had expired. He didn’t have konked hair either.

Whoever this London underground busker really was, he had almost certainly seen a picture of Hopkins, heard his records, had appropriated Hopkins’ life and confessions as his own,. and got his act together as a kind of lookalike for the smart London crowd using public transit. Maybe he didn’t have his own character and inner life to offer; it was necessary for him to borrow the personality and woes of a dead man.

If Hopkins himself couldn’t have repeated his songs a half hour after he snag them, in recordings they were frozen and picked in a different realm of time, could be learnt as if they were the repetitive anatomy of a Del Monte canned peach, studied and imitated. There as no reason for this Hopkins clone to feel exhausted after offering these Delta blues; they were;’t about his own personal anguish. It was very likely he was a West Indian or African, improbable that he had ever been to America much less had any idea what cultural Texas overtones Hopkins had put into his music.

As I got closer to the imitator I realized that he was played Hopkins riffs more cleanly than Hopkins ever did himself. He had a cleaner technique. His imitation of Hopkins’ low voice was freakishly accurate as the crooning of an Elvis or Frank Sinatra imitator. It even had a certain small shard of arch authenticity; if Hopkins had lived in London in 2003 he would have probably set up just as this man had to do his heartfelt routines.

In 2003 all England was familiar with the Blues over decades though performers different as Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. The London commuters probably hadn’t seen lightning Hopkins; since he had become in his time a bluesman known by anybody who was an aficionado of American Delta music, it might not have seems all that strange to them. Since Hopkins’ talent had once reached everybody with its gift for direct sorrowful testament, it could veer well spawn a young London Black guitarist and singer who had seen Hopkins sincerely as his totemistic model. It was more likely that this Green Park bluesman saw possibilities for getting gigs as a Hopkins clone in blues clubs like folk museums than as one that, begin totally himself, didn’t have a profile he could pitch as easily as doing Hopkins imitations.

Every time I went through the Green Park tunnel complex I saw this ghost of Lightning Hopkins at the same spot, doing some wail he had heard on records. It was always as startling as the first time I had seen him. His mimicry of one he had never known or seen was that good.

What is the point of this phantasmal story’ Sometimes if we are lucky we are present in a place where a man of talent offers something of himself that is mercurial as the demon brought up by a wizard. We don’t know what talent is; if we are lucky we have the perceptions to recognize it.

Talent is fragile. If it isn’t treated with care it may depart, sometimes leaving a performer with a future career of being a parody of what he had been. Given its call on the spirit, many men of talent might be happier without their gifts. When they die without their old and departed abilities there are new spirits in the world who offer us for a price something of the vanished magic of the dead Artist.

It’s a common theatre experience to see one man shows of mimics of Mark Twain or Charles Dickens; in music we can still hear the supposed Duke Ellington or Count Basie orchestra without their leader or any of their once living members being extant. Most jazz one hears today is imitations without acknowledgment of the dead. Some musers claim to be abodes of the living. Sometimes when the impostors are good at mimicry that is better than nothing.

What was real about Lightning Hopkins in this story’ Certainly not the power and ferocity of his utterance which was extant as a ghost in his early recordings but had probably already perished as I listened to him from another time while watching the sunset in Tangier. Was Hopkins himself in person any more substantial’ He was a fatigued old man deep into booze who was picking up pennies at a small club not for what he could still do but for shards of what he had done. The man who imitated Hopkins in a London underground tunnel certainly wasn’t real but at least there was no doubt in my spirit that he was an impostor.