With a career spanning six decades and hundreds of recordings, Lightnin’ Hopkins was among the most prolific and admired Blues players of the 20th century, and one who spanned the rural Country Blues tradition and the electric Blues of the postwar years. He was also an accomplished guitarist whose syncopated, thumping fingerpicking style directly or indirectly influenced many subsequent Blues and Rock players.
Sam John Hopkins was born in 1912 in Centerville, Texas, the grandson of slaves and the son of sharecroppers. Immersedi in the Blues from a young age, Hopkins built his first “guitar” from a cigar box and a piece of wire. By age eight he was proficient enough on his older brother’s acoustic that when he encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic, he ran home, retrieved the guitar, and proceeded to play along with legendary Jefferson, who took the youngster under his wing. Jefferson’s mentoring was a formative experience for Hopkins, who would forever cite Jefferson as his most important influence.
By age 16 Hopkins was married with a wife and young baby to support. He played music when he could and gambled some, but mostly he spent his time working in the hot fields for as little as 75 cents a day. Hot tempered and fond of drink, he was in and out of trouble with the law, and on more than one occasion sentenced to work on a chain gang.
Hopkins traveled several times to Houston, trying to break into the music scene there, but always returned to the farms of Centerville when he needed to supplement his income. Finally, in 1946 he was discovered by a talent scout for Aladdin Records and made his first recordings. With a natural wit and a flair for improvising lyrics on the spot, he would end up cutting hundreds and hundreds of songs for a myriad of labels, placing several singles on the national R&B charts while building his draw as a live performer in Houston and beyond.
By the mid 50s, Hopkins’ career had cooled, thanks at least in part to the coming of Rock and Roll. It wasn’t long, though, before the Folk revival of the 50s and 60s offered him a chance to return to the limelight. In 1959 he was ”rediscovered” by folklorist Robert “Mack” McCormick, who helped introduce Hopkins to a new audience, making him a fixture on the burgeoning Folk scene in the northeast. In 1960, Hopkins appeared at Carnegie Hall alongside Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and for the next two decades he stayed busy playing college campuses, coffeehouses, clubs, and Folk festivals, in Europe as well as the U.S. He died of cancer in 1982, at the age of 69.