Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Lightnin’ Hopkins
Still flippin’ through the stack of records my sister’s boyfriend gave me … they all came from the radio station where he works. Guess they’re not playing these albums if I have ’em!
Today I have a true rarity: Freeform Patterns, a 1968 album by bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. Hopkins, the Texas bluesman, spent most of his life living in Houston and often played nightclubs there as he came up in the late 1940s and the 1950s. At the peak of the early 1960s folk revival, national audiences began to discover and dig Lightnin’s music, highlighted by his all-time classic “Mojo Hand” which he cut in 1960.
By 1968 Lightnin’ was playing festivals, folk clubs and college campuses around the country then would return home to play beer joints in Houston’s Third Ward. The Houston-based International Artists label signed Lightnin’ to a contract and producer Lelan Rogers (yeah, Kenny’s brother) hooked him up with a backing band that included drummer Danny Thomas and bassist Duke Davis from the 13th Floor Elevators. (The psychedelic 13th Floor Elevators were in a state of flux at that time, due to lead singer Roky Erickson’s drug problems. In 1969, Erickson was committed to the Rusk State Hospital rather than face jail time for a felony marijuana charge, and the group officially broke up.)
The resulting album was Freeform Patterns, cut on one February day in 1968. It opens with a long spoken word intro to the song “Mr. Charlie,” with Hopkins telling the story of a poor little kid who stuttered so bad nobody wanted anything to do with him. The story had no punch line, other than the fact that the kid could apparently enunciate clearly only when singing the blues, or something. Better, and more characteristic, is “Mr. Ditta’s Grocery Store,” about an apparently real store Lightnin’ frequented at the “corner of Bastrop and Hadley,” which is about a block west of Dowling Street, where Hopkins lived.
Lightnin’ didn’t like to rehearse much and many of his songs (especially the tunes) had the feel of hand-me-down melodies from other classic blues songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – although “Cookin’s Done” is obviously a half-assed rewrite of Lightnin’s own “Mojo Hand”! Lightnin’ was notorious for wanting to be paid in cash (in advance) for playing, and he rarely did second takes. No wonder they cut Freeform Patterns in one day … at any rate, the album avoided all of the psychedelic tomfoolery that characterized the records that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf cut for Chess during the same time frame.
By the late 1970s Lightnin’ Hopkins slowed down, and his recording output slowed too. Although he still played festivals (most notably the Houston Juneteenth Blues Festival, in the late ’70s) Hopkins stayed pretty close to home the rest of the time, and finally he died of cancer in 1982. He’s influenced everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and he’s a giant in the world of blues music.
Lightnin’ Hopkins on MySpace (lots of streaming music)