Lightnin' Hopkins: Straight Blues

AAJ Staff By

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Cobbled together from three sessions, these sides have nothing in common – nothing but Lightnin’ and a mighty hard blues. He can sound weary, but not here: the strings bite and the notes sneak up, soft with a nasty edge. “Black Gal” has been cruel, but she’ll get hers: “You know, just like you treat poor Lightnin’/ Someone treat you the same way too.” The backing fits: bass string throbbing under twisting top notes. A lonely despair, and you hear the man walking away as he sings it. But soon he makes up: “Tear My Clothes” sounds warm, with cute bits in the break. (“Don’t tear ‘em!” he shouts at one point.) He’s smiling here, but the toughness remains, staying for the duration. And it is most welcome.The best tracks, from Houston in 1961, are up front where they belong. “Schoolgirl” is slight but speaks volumes: the guitar nearly silent, he sings with a magnificent leer. (“Lightnin’s a schoolboy too!”) “Coffee Blues” is a trifle, but has a great riff, dotted with little scratches. His solo, with delicate trills, is a standout. “Bring that coffee home!” he says at the end; here’s hoping it’s strong, like his blues.

We move forward three years, Lightnin’ on electric and with a trio. (This group, with Gaskin and Lovelle, made two albums for Prestige.) The sound is cloudy, the songs likewise: “I Like to Boogie” has the “Coffee Blues” riff, taken slower. Hopkins’ axe sounds cleaner, but still makes a good twang. Nothing special, though the solo is nice. “Get It Straight” could almost be country, a sweet little lick and easy vocals. This feels good and ends in a minute. Don’t worry; we’ll hear it again...

The second half comes from a club date in New York. The crowd is noisy, the room has a wicked echo — that’s fine, ‘cause that’s how Lightnin’ feels. “I been wonderin’ why the peoples/ Can’t understand as I do.” Another mistreatin’ woman; another down-home solo. The crowd approves, and here comes another story. “My little girl, she has a little boyfriend – I thought I was the only one.” The pace picks up, and he says “You Is One Black Rat” with a great deal of passion. Simply angry; now it gets tragic. “Nowhere to Lay My Head” offers a lonely road and a hungry man. “I asked the Lord, ‘God ... Father ... help me.’” The notes turn soft, the crowd goes silent – pure lonesome. At least, until the applause comes.

“Just Boogyin’” is a cute instrumental, nothing but a walking bass line and a happy riff. And that will suffice. “Take Me Back” is “Get It Straight”: same riff, some of the same words. It’s OK, but I preferred it the first time. “Dowling Street” tells of Lightnin’s home, “a nice place to go to get an education.” A worried string starts twittering; the police come calling. “Why is it you white folks keep picking on me?” In the cell, he says “we cried together”: the guitar weeps eloquent. A grand strum, and triumphant applause. By turns he’s been bitter, sly, prayerful, mad – and we believe every word. A fine performance; he got it straight.

Title: Straight Blues | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: OBC

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