Texas Blues Guitarist | Midwood Guitar Studio
Posted by Robinsn Earle on Jul 1st 2020
Although it’s impossible to say with complete assurance where “the blues” first developed, a strong case can be made for the Texas Blues Guitarist. In their unfinished tome, “The Blues Come to Texas”, researchers Paul Oliver and Mack McMcormick exhaustively detail the geographic and sociological circumstances that made the Lone Star State the perfect incubation zone for such an artform. It’s an excellent read, and one of the best books ever published on the subject, but as most won’t have the patience for its 472 pages chocked full of editorial shortcomings (it was abandoned by the authors due to collaborative failures), I would like to foreground three of my favorite Texas Blues Guitarist from this unique, historical milieu.
Henry Thomas was a railroader, songster, and son of former slaves whose recorded material (24 sides between 1927-1929) is reflective of the “proto-blues” music popular among rural African-Americans around the dawn of the 20th century. It was lively, danceable, largely major-key, and pentatonic music. Thomas’ guitar technique was reminiscent of a banjo-player, banging out big chords percussively, often with a capo mid-way up the neck. He had a robust voice, and also played a version of the pan-pipes made with reeds known as the “quills”. His lyrics and melodies directly inspired the following: Bob Dylan’s “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”, “Up the Country” by Canned Heat, and “Don’t Ease me in in” by the Grateful Dead. His “Fishing Blues” has been interpreted by Taj Mahal, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, and Lovin’ Spoonful.
Blind Willie Johnson lost his sight as a child, when his adulterous step-mother threw lye in his face to stop him from further witnessing her trespasses. He clung to the church, and he clung to his guitar. He learned from blind singing preachers such as the un-recorded Blind Butler, and developed a signature growling vocal timbre (in addition to a sweeter tenor), which may be related to an ancient African technique of shamanic vocal masking. He also developed an uncannily deft and idiosyncratic slide guitar style that beautifully tracked the fluidity and vibrato of the human voice. Between 1927 and 1930 he recorded 30s sides, one of which, “Dark Was The Night, Cold was The Ground”, a mostly instrumental, Baptist “moan” traditionally played during the admission of late church-goers, was selected for inclusion on the NASA Voyager Probe as a representation of our planet’s music. His songs have also been interpreted by Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Staples Singers, Ry Cooder, Fairport Convention Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Jack Rose.
Blind Willie Johnson’s house in Beaumont burned down in 1945, and he was reduced to sleeping in the rubble of his former home. He contracted pneumonia and died after being denied admission to the nearest hospital because of his blackness. Some of his greatest songs covertly alluded to divine retribution for the racial and social injustices he had endured throughout his lifetime. For example, “God Moves on the Water” (originally written by Madkin Butler) describes the sinking of the Titanic, while “Jesus is Coming Soon” chronicles the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.
One of the few original Texas Blues Guitarist to eventually receive his due was Lightin’ Hopkins. Born in 1912, he was mentored by older bluesmen Alger “Texas” Alexander and Blind Lemon Jefferson. After some hard living (in and out of prison) and lots of solo picking, he came to embody the full fruition of what is now commonly held as the blues as a musical style. Distinct from the proto-blues of Henry Thomas and the Gospel Blues of Blind Willie Johnson, Hopkins largely favored the 12-bar structure that served as the perfect vehicle for his inspired improvisations and melodic inventions. He, like many of his lesser known contemporaries, developed the Blues as a means of airing repressed grievances. Far from unilateral in his subject matter, however, his compositions are alternatively comedic, domestic, nostalgic, and politically charged. His slow, sweet instrumental phrasing, and conversational vocal delivery style has served the template for countless imitators to come. He was led to the 60s folk revival scene by the aforementioned researcher Mack McCormack, and went on to tour with Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and the 13th Floor Elevators. He was Houston’s poet-in-residence for 35 years before he died in 1982. His guitars are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As the New York Times put it upon his death, Lightnin’ Hopkins was, “perhaps the greatest single influence on rock guitar players.”
Owing to the communal nature of early Texas blues music, it can be difficult to decide who should get credit for what, but it is not hyperbolic to suggest that the course of American musical history was affected by the recordings of these three great artists. Henry Thomas, Blind Willie Johnson, and Lighting Hopkins are my favorites, but there were countless more who contributed, too. We should honor and venerate cultural architects wherever and whenever we find them. In this case, they were disenfranchised black men from Texas, the last American state to deliver notice of emancipation to its hostage citizens. These three musicians deserve some of the tallest statues in the pantheon of the Blues.