Release Date: May 13th, 1962
Words by: Peter Berris
October 3rd, 2012
Lightnin' Hopkins makes everything sound cool and effortless. In terms of musical attitude, he is the Ray Charles of guitar blues. There is a film kicking around that summarizes the Hopkins take on the blues perfectly. The first part is footage of country blues great Mance Lipscomb, and the other part is Hopkins. Lipscomb looks weary and tired, and one of his hands is bandaged. Hopkins is wearing sunglasses, and playing with the energy and force of a much younger man. As a cousin of mine pointed out, Lipscomb and Hopkins both sound undeniably great in the film, but they could not be further apart in terms of approach. While Lipscomb was playing traditional folk blues of a specific style, Hopkins was incorporating a wide range of influences, sounds, and genres into his own take on the blues.
The album Lightnin' Strikes is a perfect example of this synthesis. This is apparent in the selection of songs which range from lively instrumentals to slower, more traditional blues ballads. Despite the variety, the album is remarkably cohesive because Hopkins' amalgamation of styles is apparent within every individual song. The track 'hurricane betsy' for example, is a traditional blues disaster song. Such ballads are already very much rooted in the blues traditions, but Hopkins takes his song a step further in this direction. The lyrics in the second half of the song borrow liberally from an older number—Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'black water rising.' The thematic content is old, some of the lyrics are very old, but the style of the performance is oddly modern. Multiple generations are crammed into one five-and-a-half minute song.
The combination of influences is even more unusual in some of the other tracks, such as the instrumental 'guitar 'lightnin'.' Hopkins pairs his unique Texas-blues guitar runs and turnarounds with a jazz combo sound and a touch of rock and roll. It is very simple– a bit of drums, a walking bass line, and guitar. It is a fun sound, and an unusual one, though all of the individual influences are familiar.
Other highlights include 'take me back,' a catchy, upbeat Mississippi John Hurt style song played with the customary Hopkins vigor, the lively 'mojo hand,' and the slow and eerie 'woke up this morning.' Although all of the songs are good, the album in many ways works best as a cohesive unit—an exploration of moods, themes, and styles.
Hopkins is in top form throughout Lightnin' Strikes which likely adds to the album's cohesiveness. His guitar playing is exceptional and his vocals are as relaxed and cool as anyone could hope for. The material is enjoyable too, but Hopkins could turn almost anything into an effective blues tune.
All in all, Lightnin' Strikes is an excellent example of the Texas-blues idiom, and it is a strong blues album in general. There are a lot of Lightnin' Hopkins albums, and there are a lot that are worth listening to. This is one of them.