There’s a good chance that blues guitar guru Samuel John “Lightnin'” Hopkins is one of the reasons your favorite guitarist is, well, your favorite guitarist. Hear me out.
Blues helped lay the foundation upon which a lot of modern music is built. A great example of this is in the guitar work. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to country music or death metal. Somewhere along the way, a bluesman probably influenced the way those guitarists play. And Lighnin’ Hopkins had a massive impact on blues, especially how later bluesmen approached the guitar.
In fact, you can still hear his direct influence in the guitar playing of countless blues, folk, rock, and country music artists. For instance, Townes Van Zandt talked about Hopkins on the 1997 album, Documentary. He said Lightnin’ opened his eyes to a whole new way of playing.
Jimmie Vaughan is a blues guitar legend in his own right. He was also the older brother and mentor of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan. Jimmie knows a thing or two about the genre. He said, “I don’t think there could be a B.B. King or a Buddy Guy or a Jimi Hendrix or a Stevie Ray Vaughan without Lightnin’ Hopkins.”
Who Was Lightnin’ Hopkins?
Hopkins was born on March 15, 1912, in Centerville, Texas. He started playing guitar at a young age, but he didn’t cut his first record until the mid-1940s. He played venues of all sizes throughout America and Europe. Location and crowd size didn’t matter. Lightnin’ would pour out his soul via his guitar strings and captivate everyone in the room. He did so until he died in his home in 1983, according to his obituary in the New York Times.
Hopkins was only eight years old when he started learning basic blues guitar from his older brother. Apparently, Lightnin’ Hopkins was a quick study. In fact, he met the “Father of Texas Blues,” “Blind Lemon” Jefferson that same year at a church picnic. He was so excited by what Jefferson played that he ran home, grabbed his brother’s guitar, and came back to play along with Jefferson. The elder bluesman took Hopkins under his wing and would go on to be a major influence on him, according to the Teach Rock profile on Hopkins.
Lightnin’ Hopkins went on to press hundreds of singles for various labels. Sometimes, he recorded the same songs for different labels. Music historian and folklorist Mack McCormick discovered Hopkins in the late 1950s.
This led to him being folded into the folk revival in the Northeastern United States, which introduced him to a broader audience. McCormick said Hopkins was “a street-singing, improvising songmaker born to the vast tradition of the blues. His music is as personal as a hushed conversation.”
I could write all day about the greatness of Lightnin’ Hopkins. However, the best way to really get to know any musician is through their music. So, let’s listen to a few tracks.
‘Ida May’ (1947)
This song was his first single. He recorded it in 1946 and it hit shelves the following year. For many, this slow, moody tune was their introduction to Lightnin’ Hopkins. That fact makes “Ida May” an incredibly important record in the history of American music.
‘T-Model Blues’ (1949)
This one is older and a little rougher around the edges. It’s still a solid track. Lightnin’s songs were packed with double entendre. So, it could be about a run-down car or he could be looking to get rid of his woman and get one who is “younger and faster.”
‘Mojo Hand’ (1962)
This is one of Hopkins’ most popular songs and still one of my favorites. It’s a classic 12-bar blues with some really solid guitar work. On top of that, it’s about getting a voodoo charm to make his lady stop cheating on him. If you only listen to one Lightnin’ Hopkins track, let this be the one.