03 February 2010

Lightnin' Strike

1972-1973.  Astrodome.  Cheap seats, just left of center field.  During mid-week Astros games, five bucks got us into the game and bought Cokes and hotdogs for supper, maybe popcorn or candy if there was a promotion like "ladies' night" or two-for-one dogs.  Some nights we took home change. We lived in Smith Square and walked to the game--didn't even have to pay parking. 
The size of the crowd in that section varied from every seat filled to a dozen or so regulars.  Sometimes there were Little League teams, fresh faced kids from the suburbs of Sharpstown and Westbury.  Some nights brought the player and band parents from Yates or Worthing High Schools.  Men just back from working the off-shore rigs and contruction workers crowded in on nights when beer was cheap. On those nights it could get a bit rough but by and large it was a congenial crowd--we all loved the game.

When we were lucky and the section wasn't too crowded, a black man (Negro had just passed from polite use, and Afro-American had yet to be introduced) in a slouch hat and somewhat garish jacket sat with a guitar.  The guitar was a thing of beauty.
Before the game and during lulls in the action, he played 12-bar blues with licks and progressions, and frequently a sustained bass.  Sometimes he sang or kinda hummed.  It was unlike any music I had ever heard and I loved it. 
Sometimes  he seemed to be just fooling around, free and loose.  Sometimes I thought he was composing a new song.  Come the 7th inning, he always had a mini-concert which I thought would have been well worth a cover charge that was more than double what the grad student with the working wife had budgeted for the evening.  Baseball and blues.  It just doesn't get any better.
One night, flush with both gratitude and a little cash, DMP offered to buy him a hotdog and Coke and he said, "Make it a beer."  My tee-totaling, church of Christer paused for a beat (during which the man did some pretty fancy drumming on the guitar case) and then said, "You got it." 
When we asked his name, he said, "My mamma named me Sam; most folks calls me Lightnin." Although we didn't know it at the time we had met Houston blues legend, Lightnin' Hopkins.

We spent the next few years with the U.S. Army in Maryland and when we came back to Houston rarely attended Astros games except with friends.  We seldom sat in the cheap seats, having grown prosperous and less rich.
I did continue to see Sam out and about, now and then.  At Herman Park Zoo a couple of times.  Very often at DMP's slow-pitch softball games for church or work teams when they played week night games at parks in the UH or TSU neighborhoods.  He'd be sitting at the top of the bleachers if there were any--on a picnic bench or railing or car bumper otherwise--with his guitar.  The man either loved a ball game or just liked to be playing a crowd.  I ran into him at a bus stop now and then.

The last couple of times I saw him was early in the 1980s.  He looked unwell. He was playing the blues in hospital lobbies at the Texas Medical Center. There is no unacknowledged pain in the blues; nonetheless there is something joyous and hopeful in that music.

 Listen to Lightnin' Hopkins on youtube.com
I chose this rendition of Cotton because I like the photos and because the songs I remember best were those that evoked my childhood growing up on the farm.  It was common ground.  "I never felt more like singin' the blues."
Yesterday's Houston Chronicle had an article about a proposed marker in honor of Lightnin' Hopkins on Dowling Street near the popular club which charged a cover to hear my friend play.  Sam was quite famous and not the poor old man I thought him to be, one of my "angels unaware."


BrandyMcD said...

What a neat story!

Jeremy Gentry said...

Ran across your comment on the Traces of Texas FB account. This is a great story, and you tell it well. Thanks for sharing!