Lightnin' Hopkins

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For other people named Sam Hopkins, see Samuel Hopkins.
For the R.E.M. song, see Document (album).
Lightnin' Hopkins
Lightnin' Hopkins.jpg
Background information
Birth name Sam John Hopkins
Born (1912-03-15)March 15, 1912
Centerville, Texas, United States
Died January 30, 1982(1982-01-30) (aged 69)
Houston, Texas, United States
Genres Electric blues, country blues, Texas Blues
Occupation(s) Guitarist, singer-songwriter
Instruments Guitar, Piano, Organ
Years active 1946–1981
Labels Aladdin, Modern/RPM, Gold Star, Sittin' in With/Jax, Mercury, Decca, Herald, Folkways, World Pacific, Vee-Jay, Arhoolie, Bluesville, Tradition, Fire, Candid, Imperial, Prestige, Verve, Jewel

Sam John Hopkins (March 15, 1912 – January 30, 1982[1]), better known as Lightnin’ Hopkins, was an American country blues singer, songwriter, guitarist, and occasional pianist, from Houston, Texas. Rolling Stone magazine included Hopkins at number 71 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.[2]

Musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick opined that Hopkins "is the embodiment of the jazz-and-poetry spirit, representing its ancient form in the single creator whose words and music are one act".[3]


Born Sam John Hopkins in Centerville, Texas,[4] Hopkins' childhood was immersed in the sounds of the blues and he developed a deeper appreciation at the age of 8 when he met Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic in Buffalo, Texas.[1] That day, Hopkins felt the blues was "in him" and went on to learn from his older (somewhat distant) cousin, country blues singer Alger "Texas" Alexander.[1] Hopkins had another cousin, the Texas electric blues guitarist Frankie Lee Sims, with whom he later recorded.[5] Hopkins began accompanying Blind Lemon Jefferson on guitar in informal church gatherings. Jefferson supposedly never let anyone play with him except for young Hopkins, who learned much from and was influenced greatly by Blind Lemon Jefferson thanks to these gatherings. In the mid-1930s, Hopkins was sent to Houston County Prison Farm for an unknown offense.[1] In the late 1930s, Hopkins moved to Houston with Alexander in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the music scene there. By the early 1940s, he was back in Centerville working as a farm hand.

Hopkins took a second shot at Houston in 1946. While singing on Dowling St. in Houston's Third Ward (which would become his home base), he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum from the Los Angeles-based label Aladdin Records.[1] She convinced Hopkins to travel to Los Angeles, where he accompanied pianist Wilson Smith. The duo recorded twelve tracks in their first sessions in 1946. An Aladdin Records executive decided the pair needed more dynamism in their names and dubbed Hopkins "Lightnin'" and Wilson "Thunder".

Gold Star promotional photograph, 1948

Hopkins recorded more sides for Aladdin in 1947. He returned to Houston and began recording for the Gold Star Records label. In the late 1940s and 1950s Hopkins rarely performed outside Texas. He occasionally traveled to the Mid-West and Eastern United States for recording sessions and concert appearances. It has been estimated that he recorded between eight hundred and a thousand songs in his career. He performed regularly at nightclubs in and around Houston, particularly in Dowling St. where he had first been discovered. He recorded his hits "T-Model Blues" and "Tim Moore's Farm" at SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston. By the mid to late 1950s, his prodigious output of quality recordings had gained him a following among African Americans and blues aficionados.[citation needed]

In 1959, Hopkins was contacted by Mack McCormick, who hoped to bring him to the attention of the broader musical audience, which was caught up in the folk revival.[1] McCormack presented Hopkins to integrated audiences first in Houston and then in California. Hopkins debuted at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960, appearing alongside Joan Baez and Pete Seeger performing the spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep". In 1960, he signed to Tradition Records. The recordings which followed included his song "Mojo Hand" in 1960.

In 1968, Hopkins recorded the album Free Form Patterns backed by the rhythm section of psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, Hopkins released one or sometimes two albums a year and toured, playing at major folk festivals and at folk clubs and on college campuses in the U.S. and internationally. He toured extensively in the United States[3] and played a six-city tour of Japan in 1978.

Houston's poet-in-residence for 35 years, Hopkins recorded more albums than any other bluesman.[3]

Hopkins died of esophageal cancer in Houston on January 30, 1982, at the age of 69. His New York Times obituary named him as "one of the great country blues and perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players."[6]

References in popular culture[edit]

A statue of Hopkins sits in Crockett, Texas.[3]

Hopkins is referenced in Erykah Badu's 2010 "Window Seat": "I don't want to time-travel no more, I want to be here. On this porch I'm rockin', back and forth like Lightnin' Hopkins."

R.E.M. features a song named "Lightnin' Hopkins" on their 1987 album Document.

Hopkins's single "Back To New Orleans (Baby Please Don't Go)" is covered by fictional country singer Cherlene in the FX comedy Archer (season 5, episode 1).


Hopkins' style was born from spending many hours playing informally without a backing band. His distinctive fingerstyle playing often included playing, in effect, bass, rhythm, lead, percussion, and vocals, all at the same time.[citation needed] He played both "alternating" and "monotonic" bass styles incorporating imaginative, often chromatic turnarounds and single-note lead lines. Tapping or slapping the body of his guitar added rhythmic accompaniment.

Much of Hopkins' music follows the standard 12-bar blues template but his phrasing was very free and loose. Many of his songs were in the talking blues style, but he was a powerful and confident singer.[citation needed] Lyrically his songs chronicled the problems of life in the segregated south, bad luck in love and other usual subjects of the blues idiom. He did however deal with these subjects with humor and good nature. Many of his songs are filled with double entendres and he was known for his humorous introductions.[citation needed]

Some of his songs were of warning and sour prediction such as "Fast Life Woman":

"You may see a fast life woman sittin' round a whiskey joint,
Yes, you know, she'll be sittin' there smilin',
'Cause she knows some man gonna buy her half a pint,
Take it easy, fast life woman, 'cause you ain't gon' live always..."[3]

Selected discography[edit]

  • 1959 - Lightnin' Hopkins Strums the Blues (Score)
  • 1959 - Lightnin' Hopkins (Folkways)
  • 1959 - Lightnin' and the Blues (Herald)
  • 1960 - Country Blues (Tradition Records)
  • 1960 - Last Night Blues (Bluesville Records)
  • 1960 - Mojo Hand (Fire Records)
  • 1960 - Lightnin' (Bluesville)
  • 1960 - Lightnin' In New York (Candid Records)
  • 1961 - Autobiography in Blues (Tradition)
  • 1961 - Blues in My Bottle (Bluesville)
  • 1962 - Walkin' This Road By Myself (Bluesville)
  • 1962 - Lightnin' and Co. (Bluesville)
  • 1962 - Lightnin' Strikes (Vee-Jay Records)
  • 1963 - Blues Hoot (Vee-Jay Records; live at The Ash Grove 1961 with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Big Joe Williams)
  • 1963 - Smokes Like Lightnin' (Bluesville)
  • 1963 - Goin' Away (Bluesville)
  • 1964 - Down Home Blues (Bluesville)
  • 1964 - Coffee House Blues" with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee,(VJ Records VJLP-1138 Stereo)
  • 1965 - Hootin' the Blues (Bluesville)
  • 1965 - Lightnin' Strikes (Tradition)
  • 1965 - The Roots of Lightnin' Hopkins (Verve Folkways)
  • 1966 - Soul Blues (Bluesville)
  • 1967 - My Life in the Blues (Bluesville)
  • 1967 - Original Folk Blues (Kent Records)
  • 1967 - Lightnin'! (Arhoolie Records)
  • 1968 - Freeform Patterns (International Artists)
  • 1969 - California Mudslide (and Earthquake) (Vault records slp129)
  • 1991 - Swarthmore Concert Live, 1964
  • 1991 - Sittin' in with Lightnin' Hopkins (Mainstream Records)
  • 1991 - The Hopkins Bros. (Arhoolie Records, with his brothers Joel and John Henry)
  • 1991 - The Complete Aladdin Recordings (EMI Blues Series)
  • 1992 - Lonesome Life (Home Cooking/Collectables)
  • 1992 - It's a Sin to Be Rich (Gitanes Jazz Productions)
  • 1993 - Mojo Hand: The Lightnin' Hopkins Anthology (Rhino Records)
  • 1994 - Texas Blues (Arhoolie Records)
  • 1995 - Po' Lightning
  • 1999 - The Very Best of Lightnin' Hopkins (Rhino Records)
  • 2012 - Dirty House Blues (Not Now Music)


  • The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (1968). Directed by Les Blank and Skip Gerson (Flower Films & Video).
  • The Sun's Gonna Shine (1969). Directed by Les Blank with Skip Gerson (Flower Films & Video)
  • Sounder (1972). Directed by Martin Ritt, offers Hopkins singing "Jesus Will You Come By Here".
  • As of 2010, a film documentary on Hopkins was in production with Fastcut Films of Houston, entitled Where Lightnin' Strikes.
  • His song "Once a Gambler" was featured on the soundtrack of the 2009 film Crazy Heart.


  • Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale by J.J. Phillips (Serpent's Tail)
  • Lightnin’ Hopkins: Blues Guitar Legend by Dan Bowden
  • Deep Down Hard Blues: Tribute to Lightnin'" by Sarah Ann West
  • Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues by Alan Govenar (Chicago Review Press)
  • Mojo Hand: The Life and Music of Lightnin' Hopkins by Timothy J. O'Brien and David Ensminger (University of Texas Press)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Allmusic biography
  2. ^ "Lightnin' Hopkins | Rolling Stone Music | Lists". Retrieved 2010-08-09. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 64. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "russell" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  4. ^ Nicholas, A. X. (1973). Woke Up This Mornin': Poetry of the Blues. Bantam Books. p. 87. 
  5. ^ Dahl, Bill. "Frankie Lee Sims". AllMusic. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  6. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (February 1, 1982). "Obituary: Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins, 69; Blues Singer and Guitarist". New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2012. 

External links[edit]