Today, after six years of working on it, I finished my manuscript! I finished it two weeks before my goal!
In the six year process of researching Lightning Hopkins I have had the opportunity to meet many incredible people from all walks of life. Recently a long time Houston civil rights activist asked if anyone was keeping the music of Lightning alive by performing it. It did not take me long to answer because I have only come across one person who is doing that and his name is Bernie Pearl.
When it comes to performing the music of American masters like Sam Hopkins, there is a fine line between pale imitation and respect for the history, culture and heritage of the African Americans. That particularly applies when playing the blues which is the music of the African American experience.
Bernie Pearl is the brother of Ed Pearl who founded the Ash Grove, the legendary club in Los Angeles. Bernie learned how to play the blues at the foot of the masters like Lightning and Mance Lipscomb. He is fulfilling the role of keeping the Lightning’s music alive. Check out his homepage, buy his music, and go to his gigs.
In 1964 Hopkins appeared on the Steve Allen talk show. I’ve just returned from the UCLA Film and Television Archives where I watched a clip of it. Here’s a preview from my book about this TV appearance.
Hopkins taped an appearance for the Steve Allen show on June 24, 1964. Allen, a multi-talented television personality, created and then hosted the Tonight Show for NBC from 1953-1957, which made him one of America’s most popular TV personalities. By 1964 he was hosting a syndicated show for Westinghouse, which was the same variety format that he had developed on the Tonight Show. This show Hopkins performed was broadcast in August 1964.
Hopkins was joined on Allen’s show by British movie star Laurence Harvey, Don Sherman, Bernie Kopell, singer Renee Roberts and Dr. Bergen Evans. Though Allen did not interview Hopkins, he did let him to play two songs. Allen gave him a typical talk show host’s fluffy introduction saying “One of the best, most authentic of the blues singers. … he’s considered by many people in the folk music field, the king of the blues. He’s been playing guitar since he was 8 years old …”
Hopkins looked every inch a movie star, with a fresh conk in his hair, dark sunglasses, pinkie ring, white shirt, narrow dark tie and a sharp dark colored suit with narrow lapels as was fashionable then. Sitting on a stool, he played his Gibson acoustic guitar with a mike in the sound hole through a small amplifier. For some reason the name Gibson was blacked out on the headstock of his guitar. Two very conservative looking white men, probably from show’s house band, Don Trenner and his orchestra, backed him, one on stand up bass and one on a small drum kit.
Hopkins played one of the first songs he ever recorded “Katie Mae.” The band followed along gingerly. After receiving a round of applause from the live studio audience Hopkins introduced his next song, somewhat unintelligibly, as “This is [?] on Ray Charles, I ain’t got no business doing it, but I’m gonna do it.” Hopkins did a version of “What’d I Say” which was released as “Me and Ray Charles” on his Hootin’ the Blues album. This time the band is right with him, dropping out and coming in at the right places. It’s clear Hopkins is having a ball playing in a fancy TV studio for overdressed white folks. The crowd lets him know they appreciate him too and gave him another big round of applause when he finished.
Not too many people like thieves. For us Christians, its a part of our basic belief system. Right there in the ten commandments, coming in at #8 with a bullet, “Thou shall not steal.” Most people know that the music business is full of bootleggers, shady record labels, shyster club owners, crooked managers, and all sorts of leeches and ne’er do wells. Not that there are not honest people in the business, just that some of the less savory types tend to overshadow the honest ones.
Like most people, Hopkins did not like getting ripped off when he worked, whether he was recording or performing in a club or at a festival. Here’s a representative quote “I’m supposed to get the credit for a lot of things done, but I don’t get it …When it comes to bread though, I’m not the man they put the bread on. The other fellow get the break.” (See my book for the citation.)
When we think of thieves, usually the first image that comes to mind is not one of an author. However that’s what this post will be about. We’ll be discussing Alan Govenar’s actions. Govenar is the author of the first Lightning Hopkins biography. Chicago Review Press published his book, Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues on May 1, 2010.
According to the publisher’s website, “Alan Govenar is a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, and the president of Documentary Arts, a non-profit organization he founded in 1985 that is committed to presenting new perspectives on historical issues and diverse cultures.” Oh he’s committed alright, committed to robbing people and taking credit for their work. Here’s the story.
Back in 2004 or so, when I was just beginning my master’s thesis, I telephoned Mr. Govenar to discuss my research into Hopkins life. Govenar informed me that he had been researching his Hopkins biography for “twenty years.” After our conversation, I thought that Mr. Govenar had the personality of a used car salesman. Everything he said was framed in a way as if he was trying to get something over on me. For example the phrase “I got this car from a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday” came to mind. His conversation had that type of mentality. Furthermore, he made it clear that he did not like compensating people who he used as book subjects or topics.
One example he gave was a book project he had been involved on concerning the Mardi Gras Indians. He complained that the Indians expected to be paid for their images. Govenar and a photographer, Micheal Peter Smith published a book on Mardi Gras Indians. Mr. Govenar’s essay for that book actually discussed the the issue of compensating Mardi Gras Indians for their participation. Thanks to Google books, you can read that essay right here.
After I finished my master’s thesis, in 2006, Govenar phoned me. He wanted to know if I was going to do my doctoral dissertation on Hopkins. I told him yes, I was planning on it. Govenar wanted to collaborate, but I explained to him that I could not do a dissertation with another person, which he well knew since he also has a Ph.D.
In one of our conversations, Govenar complained that folklorist Mack McCormick (who had managed Hopkins for a little while from about 1959-60) would not give him information about Lightnin’ Hopkins. Govenar also complained that Antoinette Charles, who Hopkins introduced as his wife, wanted $10,000 for an interview. The main gist of Govenar’s complaints were that everyone owed him free cooperation for his book projects. Govenar’s second main point was to discourage me from proceeding with my dissertation and eventual book project on Hopkins.
Since none of Govenar’s books are deeply researched or academic in nature, I did not think that his biography of Hopkins would be well researched. I knew, however, that he would take my research from my master’s thesis and that there would be nothing I could do about it.
As time went on, I found out that Govenar had telephoned one of the professors on my dissertation committee. He strongly discouraged my professor from allowing me to proceed with my dissertation topic. But like the shoddy researcher Govenar is, he did not know that my professor he spoke with was not actually the chair of my dissertation committee so it was not that professor’s call as to whether my dissertation topic would be approved.
My dissertation topic was approved because there was no Hopkins biography at that time. Govenar’s Hopkins book was published in 2010, my dissertation topic was approved in the fall 2009 semester. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I defended my dissertation on January 2010. After going through that academic exercise, I put aside my writing and continued researching Hopkins life.
As part of the process to get a masters degree in history at the University of Houston, students are offered the opportunity to get their thesis copyrighted and put on an electronic database. Because I was well aware of Govenar’s unethical reputation, I paid the copyright fee. My thesis was put on a dissertations and theses database. That database serves to exploit the work of grad students because the company Proquest, charges libraries for access to it and passes through little or nothing to the grad student copyright holders. My thesis was now available to the public.
Now Govenar would have access to my research and could use them for his biography. However the U.S. copyright law is very straightforward, you can not just take copyrighted work and claim that it is your own.
Eventually, in May 2010, Chicago Review Press published Govenar’s book. I looked at the free preview feature on the Amazon website and noticed a similar paragraph in Govenar’s work as was in my master’s thesis. Of course I noticed that Govenar did not cite my thesis in that section of his book. I did not want to actually spend the money to buy his book because I did not want him to profit, even if it was a penny, off of my purchase.
In November 2010, I went to interview someone for the Hopkins book who I had interviewed in 2005. I brought a copy of my bound dissertation to show that interview subject. That subject told me how Govenar tried to get him to sign away his rights to an interview for $50. Needless to say that interview subject, who had spent about 12 years with Hopkins, was insulted. Luckily for me, our common ground, that Govenar was unethical, led my interview subject to want to help me with my still in progress Hopkins bio. That interview subject, call him Mr. X, then gave me a copy of Govenar’s book that he had purchased as a digital download and printed out.
After about a month, I finally had time to go through Govenar’s book. I was stunned to see how much he took from my work and did not credit. Here are some representative examples. Bear in mind this is an incomplete list. These are just the examples I gave Govenar’s publisher in hopes that they would come to an amicable agreement to avoid litigation. Unfortunately Chicago Review Press opted to ignore me and I’m sure that this whole sordid episode will end up in court.
Here is some of my evidence:
On page 220, in the first full paragraph Govenar writes: “… and on June 20, 1979, the mayor of Houston issued a proclamation to celebrate “Lightnin’ Hopkins Day.”” Govenar puts no footnote for this entire paragraph. Yet on page 89 of my thesis, under the 1979 entry: “June 20. Proclaimed Lightning Hopkins day… presentation at Juneteenth blues festival.” I know this information in Govenar’s book must have came from my thesis because the event actually occurred on June 19 (or Juneteenth as the day is commonly known as here in Texas.) The three sources I have (of which at least one is listed in my bibliography) say the event happened on June 19. So the question becomes if Mr. Govenar did not get that information from my thesis, then what other source does he have saying the event happened on June 20, particularly when the Juneteenth blues fest took place on June 18 and 19, 1979?
On page 2 of Govenar’s book he writes, Sam stated that he was born on March 15, 1912, a date he reiterated in his song “Going Home Blues (Going Back to Talk About Mama),” … contrast that with my sentence on page 6 of my thesis “Sam Hopkins himself claimed he was born in 1912. He even sang about it in his song Goin Back to Talk to Mama that he recorded in in Houston in 1949 or 1950: ‘I was born March 15th – man the year was 19 and 12.'” [Govenar continued his sentence writing “as well as in numerous interviews he gave over the course of his life” which he cites the outtakes of The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins as the source.] Rewording or quoting another scholar’s work is of course legitimate, if you cite it, which Govenar didn’t.
Then further down in the same paragraph, Govenar writes: “The Social Security Death Index lists his birth date as March 15, 1912, and his death certificate says it was March 12, 1911.” He gives no citation for where he got that information. Compare that with this sentence on page 6 of my thesis: “The social security death register puts Sam’s birth date as March 12, 1912, while his death certificate listed March 12, 1911 as his birth date.” Another typo? March 15 or March 12? Govenar has the same typo as me?
On page 203, first full paragraph Govenar writes : “In 1973 he was booked for a five night gig at the Egress Nightclub in Vancouver from February 19-23 …” Again this information goes uncredited in his book. But on page 88 in my thesis under the 1973 entry it says “February 19-23. Worked the Egress nightclub, Vancouver, Canada.”
So dear reader, you get the drift. Alan Govenar and Chicago Review Press, particularly editor Yuval Taylor, are two bit thieves, chiselers and rip off artists. My comments are of course based on evidence, not speculation. Sorry that whole mess had to take up so much space but God’s truth needs to come out. I’ve learned a lot about Lightnin’ Hopkins in the six years that I’ve been researching him and there is one thing that I’m sure about, Hopkins was not afraid to tell the truth, and that my friends, is what this whole post is about, the truth.
Hopkins often spoke of serving time on a chain gang in Houston county. Houston County is adjacent to Leon County, where Hopkins was raised. Crockett is the County seat and therefore houses the courthouse.
Hopkins told Andy Silverman of the Swarthmore College Phoenix in 1963, “I was in trouble. I had a hundred days down on the chain gang.” Later, while being taped in a recording studio, Hopkins said “Man come to me; put me in jail in Crockett. I did pretty good and I runned off. I hit the road, Jack. They come to the Trinity, got me out of the Trinity [river]. I wore a ball and chain. Man, I can show you a scar on my leg. You see that? There? That’s from wearing that man’s outfit.” (Check my book for the citations on those quotes).
As a credentialed historian (masters and doctorate degrees), my job is to weigh evidence. Diligent historians will travel across the country to get one sliver of information that might make one sentence in a footnote. For example, in late January I will travel to Los Angeles to visit the UCLA Film and Television archives to watch about 6 minutes of footage of Hopkins performing on a television talk show in the 1960s. This footage is not commercially available and its taken years for the archive to finally digitize it so I can watch a viewing copy. There may not even be a sentence about that TV clip in my book, but I must view it.
Over the years, I have made several trips to Centerville and Crockett to look through dusty court records. I’ve spent months and months going through old newspapers, and researching the state and county prison systems. I’ve corresponded and spoke with experts on Texas prisons, both state and local prison. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of six years gathering every scrap I can about Lightning Hopkins and anything I else I could gather, read, listen to, and scrutinize to help me understand Hopkins, African American history, the blues and more.
The last trip I made to Crockett just re-confirmed what I learned years ago. There is no evidence that Hopkins was ever on a Houston County chain gang despite what he said many, many times throughout his life about this topic. We must always remember that Hopkins was a story teller, a poet, a song writer and most importantly, an entertainer. When he saw what people wanted, and what people would pay to see and hear, he gave it to them. Embellishing a few details, or telling a fictional story to make his past more interesting is part of being a successful entertainer. Bob Dylan, who was influenced by Hopkins, told many a tall tale past about his life during his early years in New York City. In that respect, Hopkins was no different from the Anglos that followed him.
The last time I was in Crockett re-checking my research, I brought my fancy digital camera. Here’s a picture of the relevant court records:
So what is in these books you ask? Well sit right down, get your cup of coffee or you favorite libation and I will explain. The criminal minute books show the result of every criminal case for the various terms of court each year. All the records from the late 1800s on up until the 1960s are in these books. There are no gaps in the records for the 1930s. Hopkins said he was on the chain gang in about 1937.
I’ve been through these books about five times on two separate occasions. Also the courthouse basement holds an index of these records. The index is arranged by last name so you can, for example, look up Hopkins and then go right to the correct minute book and see the detail on the offense and the disposition thereof. Even if the records from the 1930s were incomplete, which they are not, Hopkins should show up in the index if he went through the criminal justice system. There is no evidence about Hopkins being arrested for anything in these original historic documents or what us nerdy historians call “primary documents.” I have more evidence to back up my argument, but you will have to buy the book.
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Next time we’ll take a look at a book about Hopkins by a thief named Alan Govenar. Mr. Govenar thinks it is OK to rob people of their research, put their name on it, and then profit off of it. What Mr. Govenar apparently does not understand is that you may get over in this world, but you won’t get over in the next one. In the words of Speedball Baby, an early 90s East Village punk band, Mr. Govenar better “Get Straight For the Last Supper.” (More about Speedball Baby right here.)
On a rainy Saturday in Houston the skies stayed clear long enough for hundreds of blues lovers to celebrate Lightning Hopkins legacy at the unveiling of a historical marker. The ceremony featured performances by Hopkins “cousin” Milton Hopkins and Texas Johnny Brown. Blues author Roger Wood gave the introduction and Eric Davis, who actually did the work to get the marker, also spoke. Corporate profiteers House of Blues donated a few hot dogs.
Here’s a few photos:
Here’s some of the corporate media coverage of the event:
Eric Davis has gone through the extensive red tape battle to get an “official Texas Historical Marker.” There will be a marker dedication ceremony on Saturday November 13 at 10:00 a.m. on the 3400 block of Dowling Street in Houston.
RSVP by November 8, 2010 to Eric Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 713.802.0337.
Here’s the flyer: