It was in a steamy, smoky Houston nightclub, in 1968, that I met the legendary Lightnin' Hopkins. He was my hero, or rather, the hero of my heroes, the Rolling Stones. In his 70s at the time, Hopkins had spent most of his life in obscurity, wandering the South and playing the blues. Swept up in the blues craze of the late '60s, he had become a mythic figure and I was awed.
But I was quickly brought down to earth. He was sprawled across a Naugahyde couch in the dank dressing room, a bottle of liquor at his side. Wearing a new straw cowboy hat and chomping on a soggy cogar, he rasped out ribald jokes for his ancient sidemen. There were fleeting images of gold-capped, tobacco-stained grins and lined faces etched out by the years and, yes, the blues. There were cackling laughs, deep swigs from paper cups and a feeling of warm camaraderie. They weren't myths or legends -- just three feisty old men out to have a good time.
Later that night, with a harmonica, a beat-up Gibson guitar and Hopkins' rambling vocals, they made music that curled my toes.
All of this springs to mind while reading "Nighthawk Blues," a realistic and at times wrenching novel which illuminates the bright and dark side of seminal blues musicians. The book recounts the musical and personal life of a fictional character, the Screamin' Nighthawk, a combination of singers like Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt and other legends of the musical past.
Author Peter Guralnick (who has previously published two collections of country and blues portraits, "Feel Like Going Home" and "Lost Highway") attempts to encapsulate the feel of an entire musical genre. In so doing, he both perpetuates and explodes the myths that have come to surround the rural blues masters.
The story of the Screamin' Nighthawk unfolds in a series of recollections and conversations as the singer's young, white manager, Jerry Lipschitz, follows him home after a disastrous final tour. Like Hopkins, the Hawk was an unknown who was "discovered" by the rock 'n' roll masses eager to embrace and enshrine the roots of their music. As the novel opens, the Hawk has become a hasbeen; pop culture has moved on in search of new heroes. There is nothing left but for the Hawk and Lipschitz to reflect on the momentous and mundane aspects of the singer's life.
Guralnick is consistently convincing in a musicological as well as a personal sense. His prose is peppered with rural slang, the earthy nicknames of the Hawk's counterparts, the catch phrases of the music business and the descriptions of the haunts and habitats of his characters. He captures the contradictory nature of the Blues Revival -- Lipschitz is both a musical purist and a calculating entrepreneur -- and contrasts the down-home earnestness of the blacks in country towns with the naivete and faddishness of the white, collegiate rock followers.
But Guralnick is most moving in his depiction of the Hawk himself. Deflating the pretentious, artistic facade which the media built around the blues men, Guralnick paints a literary picture of a cantankerous yet thoroughly music-saturated character for whom the blues is not a musical style, but a way of life. The Hawk is at once angry and joyous. He rails against the poverty, the day-to-day scuffles and personality clashes which mark his existence. He is an old man, fed up and, perhaps, frightened. Yet he is also bursting with a savage and passionate love of life and the blues. At the end of the book, he says to himself, "Ain't nobody ever said I don't have feeling." It is this feeling which "Nighthawk Blues" conveys with touching forcefulness.
There are a few problems. Guralnick relies heavily on extended, back-tracking sections which slow the pace and unnecessarily confine the action. He also includes a romantic subplot involving a relationship between Lipschitz and a young female singer, which fails to ignite and ultimately gets in the way of the matters at hand. And throughout the book, there is a pervading sense of guilt (articulated by Lipschitz, speaking no doubt for Guralnick himself) which questions the exploitative aspect of any project dealing with these musicians -- as if it is in some way wrong to make money off of men who were treated with such neglect.
Guralnick needn't worry. "Nighthawk Blues" is an engrossing and evocative portrayal of the character and commitment of rural blues musicians. He has provided needed insights into what is, without question, one of the richest and most often misrepresented chapters of American musical history.