The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins

 

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People is a study published in 1963 that highlights Afro-American music and its culture. It follows the history of African Americans and then the creation of their musical culture. In the chapter, “Primitive Blues & Primitive Jazz,” Baraka begins his explanation of the origins of these two genres and their connection to the culture at the time. Just a few years later, directors Les Blank and Skip Gerson came out with a documentary on the blues performer, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Hopkins was a famous blues guitarist in the 1960s who recorded almost a thousand songs during his lifetime. The documentary of Lightnin’ Hopkins and the explanation of blues in the Baraka chapter have quite a lot in common. The film displays Hopkins’ life not chronologically or historically, but through everyday events within his community. In the end, the film isn’t really centered around him at all, but rather his music within the community. The Baraka piece discusses how slavery is one of the roots of blues. Slaves weren’t allowed to have their own identities, but they could collectively sing work songs to unite their community and get through really strenuous labor. Therefore, collective song was a really important element of the creation of a sense of power within an oppressed community.  It was a way to get out daily frustrations when they couldn’t actually voice their pain in spoken word.  Therefore, when blues eventually developed, as a combination of English ballads, spirituals, and shouts, it continued to call out the pains of everyday life. Instead of complaining about slavery though, the songs of primitive blues sang of new struggles, like an inability to get money now that it was so necessary in their everyday lives. Hopkins explains that the blues has progressed to a point where it can be sung about anything.  Yet even when they’re not explicitly protesting and bemoaning a certain event, blues songs often return back to a complaint of a certain unfair social structure. The film explores the blues by showing snippets of African-American life in Texas, where Hopkins is from. The film centers on these beautiful shots and informative clips as opposed to directly showing examples or explaining the culture. This mirrors the explanation in Baraka’s chapter of the blues’ role within communities as a casual and unstructured form of music that was informal enough to just mesh with communities rather than be a separate and removed performance art.

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