Happy Birthday to Ry Cooder and Lightnin’ Hopkins
Today’s (March 15th) the birthday of both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Ry Cooder, two great musicians who are central to the story of the blues and the blues revival.
Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas in 1912, saw Blind Lemon Jefferson play when he was eight, and recorded spindly rhythm & blues hits like “Katie Mae Blues” in the late-1940s. Hopkins was famous for his improvised lyrics and percolating fingerpicked guitar. He liked to wail on an electric, but when he was “rediscovered” in 1959 by Sam Charters, the folklorist and author who was making records for Folkways, Charters insisted that he play an acoustic guitar. The classic session (available on Smithsonian/Folkways) was recorded in Hopkins’ rented room at 2803 Hadley Street in Houston, with Charters moving an Electrovoice microphone to capture both the vocals and guitar solos. Hopkins was paid $300 for a session that produced 9 songs. Here’s Lightnin’ performing a lonesome country blues not unlike those cut that day in Houston:
Hopkins went on to record prolifically and tour widely until his death in 1982 (his last gig was at Tramps in New York City). During the early-60s, Hopkins played at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles, where a teenage Ry Cooder was a regular visitor. “It was fascinating for me to see people sit down and play something really good that you wanted to learn,” Cooder told the Los Angeles Times. “The idea that you can sit a couple of feet away from somebody who’s good and watch them do it, that’s a way to be imprinted in that kind of work.”
Cooder, of course, became a master guitar player, and a sultan of the slide. “I’ve found that sherry bottles are the best because they have a long neck that bells out and are made of the thickest glass,” Cooder once told me. “So what I do is take a dozen bottles down to the auto glass place, give them some money, and they cut it up right. I tell them they can keep what’s inside the bottles.”
Here’s an early-‘70s clip of Cooder slipping that slide to Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”: