and guitarist Mance Lipscomb spent most of his 80 years as a tenant farmer around
Navasota, in Grimes County
before becoming an overnight sensation when he was 65. He missed one shot at the
big time, even though he didn’t know it at the time and didn’t much care anyway,
but he spent the last part of his life as something of a wise and talented Guitar
God, albeit an unassuming one. |
Until his “discovery” Lipscomb honed his
unique musical stylings on his front porch and at weddings and Saturday Night
Socials in and around Navasota.
He was mentored by Blind
Lemon Jefferson and played with other legendary blues guitarists like Sam
‘Lightning” Hopkins but remained unknown to the wider world until 1960.
40 years before that, in 1922, a yodeling bluesman named Jimmie Rogers heard Lipscomb
play and invited him on tour but Lipscomb stayed close to Navasota,
close to the land and the cycle of seasons that he knew so well.
how it stayed until Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz came to Texas
looking for Sam ‘Lightning”
Hopkins but discovered Lipscomb instead.
an oral biography of Lipscomb compiled by Glen Alyn and titled “I Say For Me A
Parable” Strachwitz recalled that Lipscomb started off singing songs that he thought
white men would want to hear, like “St. Louis Blues.” Strachwitz asked Lipscomb
if he knew any songs that had special meaning for the black people of the Brazos
“Oh well then,’ Lipscomb replied. “You want to hear the real
stuff.” Lipscomb then played “the real stuff” for five hours, until 1 a.m., even
though he had to get up for work at 5 a.m.
from that session went on his first record, “Texas Songster,” on Arhoolie Records,
which Strachwitz founded after hearing Lipscomb sing and play for the first time.
At the time of this discovery, Lipscomb had worked for 47 years, six days
a week, as a sharecropper. “Saturday night I’d play all night – till 11 Sunday
morning – and go right back and play for the white dance Sunday night and then
go to the fields on Monday,” he said in “I Say For Me A Parable.” Translated from
Lipscomb-ese that means “I Give Myself As An Example.”
virtue of the recordings Lipscomb made that night and on other occasions, Lipscomb
became a popular draw on the folk revival circuit. He played at the Berkeley Folk
Festival in 1961 in front of a crowd of more than 40,000 people and ended his
three-song set with a show-stopping rendition of “Motherless Children.” |
shared club dates with well-known rock bands of the day, a fact that impressed
him not at all. Speaking to Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert after
a trip to California in the 70s, Lipscomb said, “I’m mighty glad to get back on
the Nava-sot with Elnora (his wife) and my grands (grandchildren) and my hound
“I sell a few of my albums, mostly to college kids. They listen close
to my records and try to estimate (imitate) my style. Only it don’t do them a
doggone bit of good unless ear music is in them.
“I found one white boy
in California who could almost get on my side and find my bottomless sound. Only
he was kind of twistified. Almost everyone in Los Angeles is twistified. If you
twistified they ain’t much you can do except get you a good Mojo Hand.”
ended up as a celebrity in Austin,
which might be accused of “twistified” in its own right. In Austin,
Lipscomb became a mentor to a number of young Austin
musicians, including Lucinda Williams and Bill Neely.
Musicians on the
national stage took notice of the old guy from Navasota
who played guitar unlike anybody else. His songs were picked up by other artists,
or in one case just taken. His song, ‘Mama Let Me Lay It On You” is a good example.
“I estimated this song a long time ago on this same porch,” Lipscomb
told Tolbert. “A white singer named Bob Dylan must have liked this song. He followed
me around for two years to places like Berkeley and Los Angeles and he wrote a
song to the same music called ‘Follow Me Down,’ only he changed the words. He
mentioned me on the album, I understand.”
by Les Blank is titled “A Well-Spent Life” and is said to have been the favorite
film of the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. |
Lipscomb died in 1976 of
heart disease. His life and legacy exist almost in a vacuum, part of a time when
sharecroppers got up at 4 a.m. to get the mules ready to plow and people made
music from that a slice of American life that would vanish in a lifetime.