Mance Lipscomb - guitar, vocals
Decades prior to the blues being recognized as a commercially viable genre, Texan Mance Lipscomb was, among many other styles, singing and playing the blues. The most accomplished of the "dead-thumb" guitarists, Lipscomb's propulsive bass lines anchored his dance-like, spontaneous melodies. A consummate country blues style fingerpicker, the music of Lipscomb is a pathway to discovering a musical culture of the early 20th century that has had a profound influence ever since. Although Lipscomb most certainly played the blues, he rejected the categorization, preferring to be classified as a "songster," which reflected the diversity of his wide-ranging repertoire. This great diversity and his intricate guitar work made Lipscomb stand out from other Southern blues performers. His recordings were rooted in both white and black song and dance forms that not only included blues forms, but ballads, waltzes, children's songs, jigs, reels and polkas as well as styles Lipscomb himself coined descriptions for, such as the buzzard lope, cakewalk, slow drag and ballin' the jack. Popular, sacred and secular songs were all part of the mix.
Born into a musical family in 1895 near Navasota, the son of an ex-slave and a half Choctaw Indian mother, Lipscomb spent much of his life as a tenant farmer in his home state of Texas. Both of Lipscomb's brothers were guitarists, his dad played fiddle and his uncle banjo. By age eleven, he began playing guitar and before long was accompanying his father at local events and dances. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lipscomb did not record during the early blues era, but he had direct exposure to early Texas recording artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and the groundbreaking country star, Jimmie Rogers. A traveling performer invited Lipscomb to go on the road as far back as 1922 but he declined touring invitations until the blues revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, rarely leaving home. Although he performed often, most of these performances were for his own community at local functions. Remaining married to his wife Elnora throughout his life, with whom he raised a son and three adopted children, Lipscomb led a responsible, hard-working life and did not fit the blues musician stereotype of the roving gambler or hard drinking musician.
During the late 1950s, Lipscomb relocated to Houston, where a local lumber company employed him during the day. He spent his evenings performing for local audiences, often with Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, whom Lipscomb had become friends with 20 years prior, when they first met in Galveston. It wasn't until 1960 that Lipscomb encountered the music researchers Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick, who would soon be recognized for discovering him. They met on a job site, while Strachwitz and McCormick were trying to locate Lightnin' Hopkins, who had recently left the area. Strachwitz was in the initial stages of forming his record label, Arhoolie, and Lipscomb convinced the researchers to listen to his music instead. This chance encounter would mark the beginning of Lipscomb's recording career and a decade of involvement in the folk and blues revivals. Well into his 60s, it was those first recordings for Arhoolie and live performances like this one that won Lipscomb acclaim and recognition for his skill and technique as a guitarist and for the breadth of his wide-ranging repertoire.
Recorded at Ed Pearl's legendary Ash Grove in May of 1966, this remarkably clean and clear recording captures Mance Lipscomb in prime form. The performance begins with "Shorty George Cut Down" followed by "Rocks And Gravel Make A Solid Road." Both of these numbers display Lipscomb's highly developed country blues style fingerpicking, rhythmic bass work and dancing melodic lines, all of which enhance and emphasize his warm, engaging vocals.
Over the course of the set, Lipscomb delivers many of the songs from his now classic Texas Songster recording sessions for Arhoolie, but the immediacy and spontaneous interaction with the Ash Grove audience make these performances considerably more engaging. Prime examples include "Rock Me All Night Long," and Lipscomb's cover of "Baby, Please Don't Go," a classic Louisiana blues song first recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935, which has become one of the most popular of the early 20th century blues. From those same sessions, Lipscomb also performs one of his signature songs, "Ella Speed," which he is largely responsible for popularizing. A New Orleans murder ballad dating back to the 1890s, Lipscomb's version is a prime example of his rhythmic bass work and high velocity dancing melodic lines. He also revamps the lyrics to apply to events in Dallas circa 1912 and with the exception of "Casey Jones," this song has since become one of the most recognized of all the Texas ballads. Also deriving from the original Arhoolie sessions is a remarkable performance of "Mama Don't Allow," which here borrows liberally from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen." Lipscomb's intricate guitar work is superb here, capturing the energy of a band, despite the fact he is performing solo, proving himself to be an extraordinarily expressive guitar player capable of both subtlety and strength.
As one of the last great country blues men, Lipscomb, along with his friend Lightnin' Hopkins, is largely responsible for bridging the gap between rural and urban styles. This performance of "Mama Don't Allow" isn't the only example of him applying more modern sounds into his repertoire. Two of the songs here, "Johnny Take A One On Me" and the set closer, "Rock Me Mama," are both examples of Lipscomb appropriating modern styles. Lipscomb's recordings of these songs wouldn't see an official release until years later, but both will be immediately recognizable to most listeners. The former borrows lyrically from several other songs that would be covered by countless groups as "Take A Whiff On Me," turning up in multiple genres including bluegrass and country. The set closer, "Rock Me Mama," finds Lipscomb exploring the modern Chicago sound of Muddy Waters to great effect.
Whether Lipscomb is being serious, sad, wry, funny or poetic, his guitar playing lends all of these songs a remarkable degree of internal cohesion that is perfectly suited to his vocals. His technique is often intricate, but his performing style remains delightfully simple, direct and completely devoid of gimmicks.
Lipscomb achieved what only a select few of the greatest musicians ever attain - the ability to infuse his personality into every song he plays. As an artist who predated the development of the blues, Lipscomb represented one of the last remnants of the nineteenth century songster tradition. Although his recording career was limited to the later years of his life, his influence is wide ranging, having a significant impact on countless blues artists to emerge in the 1960s and being one of the only leading lights of the folk and blues revival to boast a repertoire spanning two centuries of music.
-Written by Alan Bershaw