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 11, 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 December of 1964, this remarkably clean and clear 1964 recording captures Mance Lipscomb in prime form. On this third set of the evening, Lipscomb opens with Big Bill Broonzy's "Key To The Highway" followed by his own "One Thin Dime." Both songs display his highly developed country blues style fingerpicking, rhythmic bass work, and dancing melodic lines, all of which enhance and emphasize his warm engaging vocals. On the traditional, "Motherless Children" and Blind Willie Johnson's "The Titanic," Lipscomb adds bottleneck slide to the mix to great effect.
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. A strident take of "Alabama Bound" has a joyous feel only to be followed by the pairing of "Ain't It Hard" with Blind Lemon Jefferson's "One Kind Favor," songs facing death head on. Constantly mixing it up, Lipscomb next heads into more humorous territory, first with the bouncy "Johnny Take One On Me" (which shares the same melody as "Take A Whiff On Me" and several other recognizable songs on the topic of cocaine) and the most whimsical song of the set, "Little Miss Minnie."
The remainder of the set features exemplary performances of Lipscomb's finest pure blues material. Both "I've Had My Fun If I Don't Get Well No More" (a Lightnin' Hopkins number about self destruction or slow death—or possibly both) and "Night Time Is The Right Time," feature Lipscomb's driving bass lines and incredibly fluent finger-picking. Between these two songs, he also performs the classic Ed and Lonnie Young penned duet, "Chevrolet," taking on both vocal parts as well as playing dazzling guitar lines throughout. One of the most idiosyncratic performances comes on Red Foley's "Alabama Jubilee," which features unusual shifts in both tempo and dynamics throughout the song. It would be virtually impossible for any musician to accompany Lipscomb here as this performance is so uniquely presented.
As impressive as the performance is up to this point, Lipscomb kicks things up another notch for the last half dozen numbers, several of which will be familiar to even novices of the blues. Beginning with "Come Back Baby" and continuing with "Meet Me At The Bottom," "Sugar Babe," "Brown Skinned Woman," and a partial recording of "You Rascal You," Lipscomb begins interjecting more adventurous lead guitar breaks, proving himself to be an extraordinarily expressive guitar player capable of both subtlety and strength. 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 and 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 19th 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