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 Texas : Features : Columns : Bob Bowman's East Texas

Honoring Lightnin’

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
Earlier this year, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the late legendary blues musician, was awarded a Texas Historical Marker to be placed in Houston, where he moved in the 1920s and lived until his death in 1982.

But an East Texas city long ago beat the state and Houston to the punch.

A statute of Hopkins stands in Crockett in front of the Camp Street Cafe, where he often performed during his early years.

Hopkins’ headstone stands in Houston’s Forest Park Cemetery and was the only public marker that tied Hopkins to Houston until Houstonian Eric Davis led the campaign to fund a historical marker after visiting Hopkins’ grave, only to find the headstone faded and covered with grass.

“This guy has done so much for the blues internationally and regionally, and it was sad for me to see that there was nothing in Houston to honor him,” said Davis, a Hopkins fan for ten years.

Davis originally thought about putting the state marker near his grave, which can be difficult to find. But Project Row Houses offered property on Dowling Street--a fitting place for a man who used to pay his guitar and sing while riding a bus up and down Dowling.

Hopkins, whose given name was Sam, was born in Centerville on March 15, 1912, the son of Abe and Frances (Sims) Hopkins. After his father died in 1915, the family (Sam, his mother, five brothers and a sister) moved to Leona. At age eight he made his first instrument, a cigar-box guitar with chicken-wire strings. By ten he was playing music.

By the mid-1920s Sam had started jumping trains, shooting dice, and playing the blues anywhere he could.

He served time at the Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-1930s, and after his release he returned to the blues-club circuit.

In 1946 he had his big break and first recording in Los Angeles for Aladdin Records. On the record was a piano player Wilson (Thunder) Smith; who gave Sam this nickname, Lightnin’.

Aladdin was so impressed with Hopkins that the company invited him back for a second session in 1947. He eventually made forty-three recordings for the label.

During the 1960s he played at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and in 1964 toured with the American Folk Blues Festival. By the end of the decade he was opening for such rock bands as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

During a tour of Europe in the 1970s, he played for Queen Elizabeth II at a command performance. Hopkins died of cancer of the esophagus on January 30, 1982.


Bob Bowman's East Texas
February 15, 2010 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
Copyright Bob Bowman

See A Statue for Lightnin' by Bob Bowman
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(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 40 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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