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Reviewed by Doug Freeman, June 11, 2010, Music

Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues

by Alan Govenar
Chicago Review Press, 334 pp., $28.95

"[W]hen you born in this world, you born with the blues. Upset is the blues. Worry is the blues. The blues come by what you love." So pontificated Lightnin' Hopkins in an interview for the 1969 documentary The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins, and noted Texas chronicler Alan Govenar has no trouble tracing the blues that run through Hopkins' veins in his new biography. Having extolled the roots and significance of Lone Star blues with his 2008 Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound, Govenar takes on Hopkins' legacy in an unenviable task but a necessary one in untangling myths long threaded through the scant information that exists. Rigorously researched and setting the record straight on a number of counts, Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues is an indispensable addition to the entire genre. Most notable is the book's cataloging of Hopkins' recording history, with contextualization that not only elucidates the sound of the performances but the circumstances that give each cut its individual character and improvised influence. The trade-off in such a meticulous approach is that Govenar's prose often reads dryly, a litany of events and facts that never brings to life the times, places, or, most importantly, Hopkins. The author excels in outlining the virtue of Hopkins' down-home sound in relation to that of his contemporaries, a laid-back authenticity that shone through even as that element became somewhat managed for bigger, whiter audiences later in his career. As for the man himself, the reader is left looking askance through others' recollections that often drain the colorful mythos from a complicated personality. "I'm a hidin' man. I been hidin' all my life," Hopkins once responded when asked about his omnipresent sunglasses, and despite Govenar's efforts, he largely remains oblique.

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