“Free Form Patterns” (Charly, EU)
extended 3-cd reissue of the sessions for his 1968 International Artists LP
The late Houston bluesman Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins was a man who, at least in his post-1959 “comeback” period, had a pragmatic and somewhat jaded attitude toward recording. Perhaps reacting to being burned earlier in his career, he would in this period record a certain agreed-upon number of songs for your label, cash up front, and would do one-take of each. Lightnin’ was a professional so he could deliver the goods and did not need to rehearse, and also, as his art was based on improvisation within already existing forms (forms which he would bend and stretch and mold to his immediate needs differently in each performance), each performance would be somewhat unique, even if it was a song he’d recorded many times before. This approach seems to make sense for a man whose art was so IMMEDIATE. I have always favored those blues poets who work the details of daily life into their art. Whether the details are real or contrived makes little difference—-if they SOUND like they are woven into the performance from that morning’s or last night’s experiences, then to me this contributes to the truth-telling function that many of us appreciate about the blues as a means of expression. Artists such as Hopkins or John Lee Hooker or Robert Pete Williams (and many others) are great examples of this.
For most artists, an extended 3-cd set devoted to a classic album would feature early workouts and then multiple takes of each tune, maybe also including mixes prepared for singles, etc. Not so with Lightnin’ Hopkins—-one take of each song, then on to the next. It’s almost as if Hopkins is sculpting his blues in time—-each “song” is a three-to-four minute slice of blues-time. What we have here is, literally, the complete session from beginning to end, a true fly-on-the-wall perspective, with album producer Lelan Rogers, who knows the tape is running non-stop, getting Lightnin’ (and sometimes ATTEMPTING to get Lightnin’) into conversations about his past and his attitudes. The original FREE FORM PATTERNS album, released on International Artists records in 1968, contained the “songs” plucked from within this sea of Lightnin’. Now we are presented with THE WHOLE THING, evidently meticulously re-configured from various tape fragments, as the complete session in exact order did not survive in one lump form.
FREE FORM PATTERNS has never been at the top many fans’ lists, but it’s always been one of my favorite Hopkins albums, and I have dozens of his albums, including the complete Prestige Bluesville box and the complete Jewel/Paula 2-cd set. There is a leisurely feel to the session, and the opening track, “Mister Charlie,” is for me one of his best performances. In fact, I echo it in my poem “Led Along.” I also think it is a great album to play for someone who is unfamiliar with Hopkins. Backed by his frequent collaborator and cousin Billy Bizor on harmonica and by 13th Floor Elevators members Duke Davis on bass and Danny Thomas on drums (and pianist Elmore Nixon on part of the sessions). Bassists and drummers never had an easy time working with Hopkins or John Lee Hooker because of their unpredictable chord changes and bar structure, so drummers had to play in a loose but supple way to provide a PULSE instead of a regular beat, and bassists had to IMPLY changes but cast the net wide enough to accommodate whatever Hopkins decided to do. It was an imperfect art, but those who could listen to Hopkins and feel along with him got to where the whole thing worked, and in fact there’s a kind of tension in the looseness which is refreshing. Mr. Davis and Mr. Thomas certainly got into the groove of what Hopkins was doing, and the result works as well as the Prestige/Bluesville sessions where he’s sometimes backed by jazz musicians, although there’s something about the mix of psychedelic musicians with a blues base jamming with actual blues musicians that I’ve always found unique and appealing. You get that here.
Basically, the first CD here is the original FREE FORM PATTERNS album (sounding better than ever, by the way…the original release and the earlier reissues were a bit muffled sounding) and a track from the sessions that appeared on the old EPITAPH FOR A LEGEND compilation.
The exciting news here is the 2nd and 3rd cd’s, which are the complete session recordings, from set-up through the conversations with Lelan Rogers. I can’t imagine any Hopkins fan, or any fan of REAL blues in general, not getting excited about this fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hear Lightnin’ counting the songs he’s recording, making sure he’s not giving any more than he’s getting paid for. Hear Lightnin’ the raconteur telling various tales of his exploits or details of what he did that morning or referring to some old business in the neighborhood that’s long gone. Hear him negotiating w/ the producer and the other musicians. Hear him reminisce about shared experiences with his cousin Billy Bizor. Hear him take a drink in between tunes. Hear him discuss working with the young Jimi Hendrix. Hear him essentially holding court with his followers. Lightnin’ knew that everyone here looked up to him, and this was a self-conscious performance, even if he did not know that every word was being recorded for posterity. The second half of CD 3 consists of conversations between Lightnin’ and producer Lelan Rogers, and what a treat it is to hear Hopkins loosened up and talking about his first recordings, about various small towns in East Texas, about his marriage, and much more. It’s quite different from the interview he did with Samuel Charters for Prestige/Bluesville, and it’s a treasure, a true piece of Texas history.
I’ve listened to the 2nd and 3rd discs twice each so far, but I look forward to putting them on “repeat” in the future while I’m working and getting to know them well. This is, basically, a front-row seat at a complete Lightnin’ Hopkins session (two, actually). Nowadays, everyone’s got portable devices to record EVERYTHING, but in 1968, that was not the case. Those of us who love Lightnin’ Hopkins’ work and treasure every new discovery will be ecstatic about the 3-cd extended reissue of the Free Form Patterns sessions. It’s a revelation. I don’t know what prompted Charly to take on this project, but I’m sure glad they did. For me, this is THE vintage blues release of the year. Pure Texas blues as it’s being created, on the spot. Pure 100 proof Lightnin’ Hopkins. All I can say is “aaaaaahhhhhhhh……..”
Get your copy now….a Lightnin’ Hopkins session live in your living room! Who would NOT get excited about that….sip some Bourbon or some cheap rye along with Lightnin’ and you are there…
It should be added that the liner notes and historical research provided with this package are stunning….so many rumors about the sessions and the album are actually NOT TRUE and interviews with those present have provided a number of new insights. In an attractive hard-cover digi-box, it’s an incredible document….and I predict that it will come to be regarded as a blues classic and something unique in blues recording history.
1. Mr. Charlie
2. Give Me Time To Think
3. Fox Chase
4. Mr. Ditta’s Grocery Store
5. Open Up Your Door
6. Baby Child
7. Cooking’s Done
8. Got Her Letter This Morning (AKA: She’s Almost Dead)
9. Rain Falling
10. Mini Skirt
11. Black Ghost Blues
1. Chat 1 – I’d Like To Get In Tune With The Boys
2. Song 1 – Give Me Time To Think
3. Chat 2 – Harmonica Players
4. Song 2 – Miniskirt
5. Chat 3 – Lelan: Is Billy A Hippy?
6. Song 3 – Got Her Letter This Morning
7. Chat 4 – Drinking Chat 1: No No, I Don’t Fool With Nothin’ But What I Fool With
8. Song 4 – Mixed Up [Previously Unreleased]
9. Chat 5 – Band Direction / Billy
10. Song 5 – (Mr. Dillon’s) Grocery Store Blues
11. Chat 6 – You Know Mr. Dillon?
12. Fox Chase False Starts / Band Direction
13. Song 6 – Fox Chase
14. Chat 7 – Drinking Chat 2 – I’m The Best Person In The World When I’m Drinking
15. Song 7 – Lord Have Mercy [Previously Unreleased]
16. Chat 8 – Drinking Chat 3 – Don’t Think It Ain’t Got Something In It
1. Song 8 – Rain Falling
2. Chat 9 – Argument Over Songs
3. Song 9 – Cooking’s Done
4. Chat 10 – Sweet Lil’ Woman, But You Ain’t Got No Hair + Chat
5. Song 11 – Mr Charlie
6. Song 12 – Straw Hat [Previously Unreleased]
7. Chat 11 – They Got 100 Songs
8. Song 13 – Green Onions [Previously Unreleased]
9. Chat 12 – Vietnam Song Snippet / Oh Oh Lyric
10. Song/chat – Poppa Was A Preacher Rehearsal/chat
11. Chat 13 – That Had The Feeling, Finishing Session
12. Conversation 1 – Trouble In Crockett Tx
13. Conversation 2 – Whiskey On Prescription
14. Conversation 3 – Musician’s Hours: Tommy Hall / Stacy Sutherland
15. Conversation 4 – Where`d You Pick Up The Name Lightnin’
16. Conversation 5 – You Not Gonna Mess With Elmore (Nixon) Anymore?
17. Conversation 6 – Centreville Tx
18. Conversation 7 – Politics
Release date 21 April 2014
Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins, guitar, vcl
Billy Bizor, harmonica
Duke Davis, bass
Danny Thomas, drums
(on disc 3, Elmore Nixon on piano)
recorded 3-4 January 1968 and 9 February 1968 in Houston, Texas