Inside Llewyn Davis and Finding Lightnin’ Hopkins

November 28, 2013
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Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film, inhabits a richly evocative time. Just glimpsing the sidewalks of Greenwich Village in the trailer delivers a visual madeleine of New York in the early 1960s.
    The Coens infuse that setting with violence, romance and suspense. And while egos and aggression certainly tumbled in the folk music scene with idealism and pettiness, you rarely found such overt conflict all in a single story. Except maybe in the story of one folkie producer and the blues legend he found on a trip that took him far from the Village.

    Sam Charters was a young contributor to Folkways Records, the little record label that pioneered folk and blues recording with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger. And Sam “Lightning” Hopkins was a Texas bluesman with roots stretching back to playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson. As Charters wrote later – and as he tells in the documentary I made with Andrea Kalin, Worlds of Sound: The Ballad of Folkways – he hunted the South for Hopkins, who had dropped out of public view. It was a search with its own layers of Coenesque indirection and reversal:

He had almost stopped playing in the late 1950s, and it was difficult to know where to find him. A cousin was working as a cook at a restaurant in New Orleans where I ate, and he told me to look for Lightning in Houston. At first all I could find was Lightning’s guitar. It was in a pawn shop on Dowling Street. The taxi drivers I asked, even Lightning’s sister and his landlady, were carefully vague when I asked where he was. But the word was passing, and the next morning a car pulled up beside mine at a red light, and a thin-faced man wearing dark glasses rolled down the window and called out, “You looking for me?” Lightning had found me.

The episode shows the unwitting hunger of the music subculture and its re-creation of Hopkins from one type of musician into another.

    First, Charters “got him a guitar and some gin and managed to convince him that I was serious about doing a session with him.” They recorded on January 16, 1959 in the small, dingy room that Hopkins rented. Charters insisted that Hopkins play an acoustic guitar, not the electric of his earlier recordings. Charters also paid up front, with no prospect for royalties.
    One of the songs they recorded that session was “See that My Grave is Kept Clean” – done by Blind Lemon 31 years before. (Decades later B.B. King recorded his own version, showing once again the power of the blues to conjure life in the midst of death or vice versa.)
    The Houston neighborhood where Charters recorded Hopkins held its own violent pall, of Jim Crow, which Hopkins did his best to ignore. But as an episode on page 95 in his biography, Mojo Hand: The Life and Music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, makes clear, he couldn’t always keep it out. Even after his career rose in the 1960s, a bartender at Zito’s Jungle Hut in Houston’s Third Ward denied him service for being black. Grover Lewis, a journalist who shadowed the musician, described it in the Village Voice:

When Hopkins approached the bar and ordered, the waiter answered tonelessly, “We all outta beer today, man.” Looking steadily at me, the barman mumbled, “I told you fellow, we ain’t got no beer today.”…. Stunned, Hopkins spun around and motioned curtly for me to follow, plunged back out into the sunlight. … he tried to dismiss the incident as a joke, but the more he talked about it, the angrier he became. The episode seemed to trigger some edginess in him, and in the moments that followed, he grew increasingly morose…

Folkways released the album Charters recorded later in 1959 around the time that the book The Country Blues came out. Lightnin’ Hopkins was finding himself repackaged for a new, whiter audience. Mojo Hand traces that transformation:

Before The Score label issued Lightnin’ Hopkins Strums the Blues in 1958, a compilation of previous releases from 1946 – 48. The jacket showed a white arm strumming. “Apparently, the decision-makers at Score Records thought revealing Hopkins to be an African American was not wise. The unsigned liner notes, just two paragraphs, barely hinted at his race and clearly positioned Hopkins as a true folkie… Like great folk artists such as Burl Ives, Lightnin’ improvised easily; the Score liner notes assert: ‘A chance sunlight – a glimpse of a railroad – the play of moon on the water, all turn his talent into a quick, fluent outpouring of feeling in wonderful accompaniment to his rich guitar. So long as folk music endures so long will Lightnin’ Hopkins be played.’

The labels were aiming at me. My first encounter with a Lightnin’ Hopkins record was as a white teenage suburbanite, and because his voice and his guitar playing appealed to my desire for music that was bracing but not forbidding, I bought his album.

    That included “Big Black Cadillac Blues,” a tale of seduction, betrayal and suspense that even has its own car chase, where the singer finally catches up to where his lover has stolen the prized machine of the title, but too late – she had already ruined it. “It wouldn’t run for me,” he sighs, “and it wouldn’t run for you.” (This version includes the whole story intro.)
    The year after the Folkways record came out, Hopkins had a ticket for gigs out West and an invitation to New York City. Mojo Hand again:

After his stint along the West Coast, Hopkins headed to New York City … New York promoter Harold Leventhal … arranged for Hopkins to play Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960, for a benefit for the folk music magazine Sing Out! The bill contained several important folk artists of the day, including the renowned Pete Seeger, the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, Elizabeth Knight, Jerry Silverman, the Harvesters, and nineteen-year-old Joan Baez.

The New York Times gave much of its review of the concert to Hopkins, praising his “wit and flair and improvisatory skill.” He swapped verses with Pete Seeger and had taken, the Times reviewer noted, a long journey from Houston’s Third Ward to Carnegie Hall.
    Bob Dylan would make his own hometown-to-Manhattan venture a few months later, in January 1961. And of course he was repackaging himself.
    This fall Baez returned to the Carnegie Hall stage for an Inside Llewyn Davis concert, where Jack White sang a song that Lightnin’ Hopkins had recorded first.
    The folk music movement shrink-wrapped many musicians to reach a mainstream white audience. At the same time, for many American listeners it opened a window to cultural alternatives. “Folkways,” says Charters in Worlds of Sound, “presented an alternative that was life sustaining, life giving…. we were showing that there was an alternative. Not by simply attacking what was there but saying, ‘Hey what about this? We know this but why not that too?’”

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