Monday, October 31, 2011

Dancing on Bud Russell's Grave: Lightnin' Hopkins

Sam Houston 'Lightning' Hopkins

“Goin’ back to Dallas, take my razor and my gun / . . . There’s so much shit in Texas, I’m bound to step in some.”
Texas had a reputation for many decades of being full of the stinky stuff, especially for African Americans, as tonight’s opening lyric from an unknown blues singer rather grimly attests.  Places like Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi usually get the rap for having been the real shit holes but Black Americans have known for decades that Texas, the Lone Star State, has never been that far behind.

Lightnin’ Hopkins was a Texan. He was also one of the most influential blues guitarists America has ever produced. His electric guitar playing style is raw and gritty. His voice sounds like sandpaper scraping slowly against a 2X4. Sit him in room, plug in his guitar and he’d make up a blues.
Generally speaking, Lightnin’ was not a political bluesman. He sang about love gone wrong, love so right, leaky roofs, drinking too much and gambling. The usual blues world. His songs rarely addressed (head on, anyway) racism or police brutality.  But not always.
He sang a song called Bud Russell Blues which opens like this
Sure is hot out here/ Bud Russell don’t care/You know Bud Russell drove them pretty womens/ just like he did those ugly mens
For 44 years Bud Russell was a hated and feared man in Texas. His job was to transfer prisoners from the 256 county jails across Texas to the State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He and his brother Roy would shackle the prisoners, often by the neck, toss them in a metal cage on wheels, and drive them across the second biggest state in the Union to the Big House. A brutal man and a womanizer Bud carried a shotgun and had no problem shooting to kill. 
The picture below of Roy (left) and Bud Russell with their infamous wagon is from 1934. 

So feared was he that America’s best known bandit, Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) wrote letters to his lover full of dread of being caught by ‘Uncle Bud’.  Such was his presence on the State’s consciousness that one of America’s most famous songs, Midnight Special goes like this:
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-lovin' light on me

"Here come Bud Russell," How in the world do you know?"
Well he know him by his wagon, and his forty-fo'

Big gun on his shoulder, big knife in his hand
He's comin' to carry you back to Sugarland.
Texas Blues is my favorite Lightnin’ Hopkins record. It is so full of great songs, including Bud Russell Blues. Equally harrowing and startling in their starkness are Slavery Time a song that laments

One thousand years my peoples was slaves/ When I was born they teach me this way
Tip your hat to the peoples/ Be careful son about what you say.

And Black and Evil, a song of sad defiant self hate. 
It’s not all darkness though in Texas. Hopkins shows off his humor (Bald Headed Woman) and finger picking genius (Watch My Fingers) on this absolutely essential recording.  If you have even the smallest interest in the blues and real, good music you need this album.

          Track Listing:
01 Once Was a Gambler
02 Meet You at the Chicken Shack
03 Bald Headed Woman
04 Tom Moore Blues
05 Watch My Fingers
06 Love Like a Hydrant
07 Slavery Time
08 I Would If I Could
09 Bud Russell Blues
10 Come On Baby
11 Money Taker
12 Mama's Fight
13 My Woman
14 Send My Child Home To Me
15 Have You Ever Loved a Woman
16 Black and Evil
Listen here.


Holly said...

This *is* a great album - thanks for reminding me!

Robert Russell said...

Some of your information on Bud Russell is grossly inaccurate. Roy Russell was Bud's son, not his brother, nor was Bud a womanizer as he was a happily married Christian man. Also, he was tough and stern when the need arose with unruly prisoners but he was known for his fair and humane treatment of prisoners that were in his custody and on the contrary, he was feared by prisoners but he didn't have a reputation for brutality, nor was he a killer. Bud was highly respected by both lawmen and convicts alike. During his 40 year career with the Texas Prison System, he transferred 115,000 prisoners, brought back 4,100 escaped Texas prisoners who had been recaptured from every state in the Union, and only 1 prisoner successfully escaped who was later recaptured. How do I know? I'm his Great-grandson and I've written his biography and interviewed numerous ex-convicts that knew Bud. I sure wish I had gotten a chance to interview Lightin' Hopkins though. With the exception of the above corrections, you have a good story on Lightin' Hopkins.

JC Jaress said...

Your information on the painting of Lightnin' Hopkins that appears on this post is incorrect...I know because I painted it. My name is JC Jaress. You are welcome to keep using the image but please make the name correction.

And, as a rule, you should try and get permission before you grab other people's artwork.