Lightnin' Hopkins
Straight Blues

Cobbled together from three sessions, these sides have nothing in common; nothing but Lightnin' and a mighty hard blues. He can often sound weary, but not here. Strings bite and notes sneak up, soft but with a nasty edge. We start in Houston, from 1961. "Black Gal" has been cruel, but she'll get hers: "You know, just like you treat poor Lightnin'/ Someone treat you the same way too." The backing fits; bass string throbbing under twisting top notes. "Schoolgirl" is slight but speaks volumes: the guitar nearly silent, he sings with a magnificent leer. ("Lightnin's a schoolboy too!") He's smiling here, but the toughness remains, staying for the duration. And it is most welcome.

We move forward three years, Lightnin' on electric and with a trio. The sound is cloudy, the songs likewise: Hopkins' axe sounds cleaner, but still makes a good twang. "Get It Straight" could almost be country, a sweet little lick and easy vocals. This feels good and ends in a minute. Don't worry; we'll hear it again...

The second half comes from a club date in New York. The crowd is noisy, the room has a wicked echo. That's fine, because that's how Lightnin' feels. "My little girl, she has a little boyfriend, I thought I was the only one." The pace picks up, and he says "You Is One Black Rat" with a great deal of passion. That's angry. Now it gets tragic. "Nowhere to Lay My Head" offers a lonely road and a hungry man. "I asked the Lord, 'God ... Father ... help me.'" The notes turn soft, the crowd goes silent - pure lonesome. At least, until the applause comes.

"Take Me Back" is "Get It Straight": same riff, some of the same words. It's OK, but I preferred it the first time. "Dowling Street" tells of Lightnin's home, "a nice place to go to get an education." A worried string starts twittering; the police come calling. In the cell, he says "we cried together." The guitar weeps eloquent. By turns he's been bitter, sly, prayerful, mad, and we believe every word. It's a fine performance; he got it straight. - John Barrett

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