The Southeast Texas-East Bay Music Connection

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Like the Juneteenth Celebration, which originated in Galveston and spread throughout the United States, southeast Texas has had a major influence on the Bay Area music scene. Most folks know that Janis Joplin, born in Port Arthur, Texas, spent 1963 to 1965 in San Francisco, then migrated to the Bay Area again in 1996 to join Big Brother and the Holding Company. What's not so well known is the influence of other South Texas musicians on the blues, 1950s R&B, and zydeco. Many of these musicians played at early Berkeley Folk and Blues Festivals, as well as in other local venues such as Eli's Mile High Club in Oakland and St. Mark's Church Hall in Richmond. This page traces the history of the musical confluence of the southeast Texas Gulf and San Francisco Bay.

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Sonny Rhodes at Eli's Mile High Club (Photo by Alan Govenor from Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound)

In the 1940's, it was Oakland sound, Texas style -- electrified. The BluesWeb's Bay Area Blues Tradition essay claims, "For the most part, [the new Oakland music] was of the down-home Texas variety, only plugged into electricity to create an exciting urban variety that writer Michael Lydon has appropriately dubbed 'boogie lightnin'." Among the many bluesmen who performed around the area during the mid-to-late forties were such soon-to-be-important figures as Ivory Joe Hunter, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Pee Wee Crayton and Jimmy Witherspoon." (Ivory Joe Hunter is from Kirbyville [north of Beaumont], Lowell Fulson arrived via Gainsville, and Pee Wee Crayton came from Austin.) In the 1980s, Sonny Rhodes, from Smithville via Austin, played regularly at Eli's Mile High Club. Rhodes' famous "Cigarette Blues," is a forerunner of today's anti-smoking advertisements: "She woke up coughin'. She thought she had a cold, but after years of smokin' cigarettes, her lungs were about to fold." L. C. "Good Rockin" Robinson, a major Bay Area blues artist from whom Rhodes learned Hawaiian lap steel guitar technique, hails from Brenham, Texas, about half-way between Austin and Houston. Oakland gets the honors for early recognition of Texas bluesmen, but it took Berkeley's Folk and Blues Festivals, along with a Berkeley record producer, to bring the Texas blues and its practitioners to world-wide attention and acclaim.

Missing picture, Mance Lipscomb, Navasota, Texas
Beau D. Glen Lipscomb (b. April 9, 1895, Navasota, Texas), also known as Bodyglin and Crackshot in his youth, borrowed his adult first name, Mance, from a long-time friend named Emancipation. Lipscomb, son of an Alabama slave who played the fiddle professionally after his emancipation, received his first guitar at the age of 12. Lipscomb was a major influence on the later work of Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Taj Mahal, and Janis Joplin. Sam Andrew of Big Brother and The Holding Company says: "We listened gratefully to Mance Lipscomb play his beautiful Texas style guitar, a style that embraced the blues, Mexican music, 'country and western', church hymns, ragtime and any other music that came through the Texas crossroads. Mr. Lipscomb's music as a salvation, a way out, and we knew it right away."

Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records "discovered" Lipscomb with the aid of Houston folklorist, Mack MacCormick, in 1960; Strachwitz recorded Lipscomb for Arhoolie's first album (1001) in Navasota with a single mic. (Strachwitz credits MacCormick for the name "Arhoolie," which means "field holler" in the southeast.) Strachwitz and Barry Olivier later convinced Lipscomb (by a $300 performance fee) to take the three-day train ride to Berkeley to appear at the 1961 Berkeley Folk Festival, along with Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie. 

Kirkus Reviews reported that Mance Lipscomb "caus[ed] mass catharsis among 41,000 [sic] listeners when he played 'Motherless Children' in Berkeley--ending his first-ever concert after just three songs." (The audience actually was 4,100; Lipscomb substitutes "thousand" for "hundred" in his narratives. Glen Alyn quotes Lipscomb as saying he played four, not three, songs.) In addition to his renown musicianship, Lipscomb was an accomplished storyteller in the African Anansi (corrupted to "Aunt Nancy") tribal tradition.

Arhoolie's "Texas Songster" CD includes of the original 1960 tracks from Arhoolie 1001, plus additional tracks recorded in 1964. "Captain Captain: Texas Songster Vol. 3" includes unreleased works from the 1960 Navasota session, plus several tracks recorded in Berkeley in 1996.

Lipscomb suffered a stroke and double-pneumonia in January, 1974, and died January 30, 1976 at the age of 81. The July 1997 issue of Texas Monthly offers a brief biography of Mance Lipscomb by Chester Rosson, author of the "Texas Music Source" columns. (Rosson's "Juneteenth" column in the Texas Monthly claims that Juneteenth "is no longer the universal celebration it once was," at least in Texas.)

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Lightnin' Hopkins at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1974 (Photo by Michael P. Smith from Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound)
Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins (b. March 15, 1912, Centerville, Texas) was the inspiration for Chris Strachwitz's 1960 trip to South Texas. Strachwitz intended to record Lightnin', who was in California at the time, so he tracked down Mance Lipscomb as an alternate. Sam gained his nickname in the 1930s when he joined with piano player "Thunder" Smith to play the Houston club circuit. Hopkins, whose guitar style was influenced primarily by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, recorded for a number of regional labels from 1946 through the 1950s, including Houston's Gold Star. Arhoolie's two-volume reissue of the Gold Star tracks is considered by most fans as  quintessential Lightnin'. Hopkins was a master storyteller and song writer; he improvised to the point where no two performances of his songs were the same. The "folk-blues revival" of the mid- to late-1960s brought Hopkins back into the musical mainstream of the period, with appearances at the 1960 Berkeley Folk Festival, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead concerts, two performances at Carnegie Hall, plus American and European Tours. In the late 1960s, Hopkins recorded with Barbara Dane (electric and acoustic guitars, respectively) live at Berkeley's Cabale coffeehouse (Telegraph and Haste) and cut an additional 16 studio tracks for Arhoolie in a 1969 Berkeley session.

Hopkins died of throat cancer on January 30, 1982, two years after being inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. Texas Monthly also carries a brief Hopkins biography in its January, 1998 issue.

Bibliography, Multiple Artists

Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound by Alan B. Govenar (1995, Da Capo Press, ISBN 030680641X) is a profusely-illustrated, large-format paperback that includes a substantial number of first-person interviews from Living Blues magazine. (See especially "The Move to California" chapter.)

"Texas Blues Guitar," is an anthology of performances by Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Freddie King and Mance Lipscomb (VHS tape distributed by Vestapol Video.)

The archives of the Berkeley Folk Festival are located at the Northwestern University Library (Evanston campus) in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. Barry Olivier collected over 30,000 items housed in 69 boxes. According to the Library, the collection includes "photographs of over two hundred folk artists and groups, general photographs of Berkeley Folk Festivals from 1957 - 1970, tapes, press clippings, correspondence, publicity information on various folk artists, festival programs from 1958 - 1970, the festival's operating files, posters of performers, and posters and flyers of most of the festivals held during this period." Barry's essay on the history of folk music at Berkeley from 1956 to 1970 is included in the collection's register. The McCormick Library also has an archive of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. (It's unfortunate that UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library didn't see fit to acquire and house these collections.)

Bibliography, Mance Lipscomb

I Say Me for a Parable : The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman by Glen Alyn (1995, Da Capo Press, ISBN 030680610X)

"Mance Lipscomb: Fight, Flight or the Blues," by Glen Alyn, from Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore, Francis E. Abernethy, et al., editors (1996, University of North Texas Press, ISBN 1-57441-018-0)

"Mance Lipscomb in Concert" (VHS tape of a 1969 television concert distributed by Vestapol Videos)

Bibliography, Lightnin Hopkins

Deep Down Hard Blues: Tribute to Lightnin' by Sarah Ann West (1995, Brunswick Publishing Co., ISBN 1556181507)

"Lightnin' Hopkins: Blues Bard of the Third Ward" by John Wheat, from Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore, Francis E. Abernethy, et al., editors (1996, University of North Texas Press, ISBN 1-57441-018-0)

"The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins," a 1969 film by Les Blank (VHS tape distributed by Flower Films)

"Lightnin' Hopkins: Rare Performances 1960 - 1979," a potpourri of performances in Houston, Seattle, and Austin (VHS tape distributed by Vestapol Videos)

1950's R&B

Leo Sacks' Texas Soul, a New York Times review of The Early Years of Rhythm and Blues: The Photography of Benny Joseph by Alan B. Govenar (1990, Rice University Press, out of print) makes the major statement on the influence of Houston musicians on R&B: "In the early 1950's, when Houston was the home of this country's most vital rhythm-and-blues scene, Benny Joseph was hired by Don Robey to photograph the rising stars of his two record labels, Duke and Peacock. Artists such as Bobby (Blue) Bland, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown, Johnny Ace and Junior Parker (whose 'Mystery Train' inspired a young Elvis Presley) were making a new kind of Southern blues that would strongly influence subsequent pop, soul and gospel sounds."

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Courtesy of the
Texas Music Museum
T-Bone Walker (b. May 28, 1910, Linden, Texas) brought the electric guitar sound to traditional, acoustic blues. Linden is in northeast Texas and Walker called the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas his home (he was known as "Oak Cliff Walker" at one point), so it's a stretch to call him a southeast Texas musician. Walker was a major influence on guitarists of the 1950s and later, including Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, as well as innumerable other players. According to Big Brother's Sam Andrew, "We did the 'dirty bop' to Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker while teenagers in other parts of town listened to Johnny Mathis. Texas blues permeated towns like San Antonio, Houston and Port Arthur. This wonderful music was subversive in a way that Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggert could never imagine. The blues helped us understand what the big men never knew." Walker made his first Bay Area appearance at the the 1970 Berkeley Blues Festival.

Chester Rosson says of T-Bone Walker in the June 1997 Texas Monthly: "In his ground-breaking book on Texas musicians, Texas Rhythm, Texas Rhyme [out of print], Willoughby Williams says flat out: 'T-Bone Walker was the most important and influential musician in the history of rhythm and blues, and perhaps in the history of all its derivative styles, including rock 'n' roll.' He credits Walker with combining advanced technique on electric guitar with the standard blues combo of tenor sax, string bass and piano to produce the accepted format for R&B. Walker's electrifying performance style also provided a model for the high-energy rock 'n' roll stage style that emerged in the fifties and forever changed American pop music."Robert Palmer describes Walker's style in the original The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll: "[B]y using his amplifier's volume control to sustain pitches and combining this technique with the string-bending and finger vibrato practiced by traditional bluesmen, Walker in effect invented a new instrument. In addition he developed a chordal style on fast numbers, a pumping guitar shuffle that led eventually to the archetypal rock 'n 'roll guitar style of Chuck Berry."

T-Bone Walker died March 16, 1975 as the result of a severe stroke suffered in 1974. Click here for an extensive T-Bone Walker biography, bibliography, and a brief discography.


Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story by Helen Oakley Dance, (1990, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80413-1)


Lorenzo Thomas, in "From Gumbo to Grammys: The Development of Zydeco Music in Houston," defines zydeco as the "dance music of African-American creoles in southwestern Louisiana." A Houston folklorist, Mack MacCormick, attributes the term "zydeco" (also spelled "zodico,"earlier called "la la music") to a phonetic contraction of "Les Haricots[--Pas Sales]" ("Snapbeans -- No Salt"), the name of a traditional Cajun tune, also known as "Zydeco et Pas Sale." The most distinctive difference between Cajun and zydeco music is zydeco's substitution of African percussion in the form of a frottoir (rubboard) for the traditional Cajun triangle. Since the 1950s, the most popular zydeco musicians have added R&B overtones to the traditional zydeco style.

The armament demands of World War II resulted in a migration of both black and white inhabitants of southwestern Louisiana to the shipyards and oil refineries of the Gulf Coast and Bay Area (see the note at the bottom of the page.) Houston and Port Arthur, as well as Richmond and Oakland, gained a large population of Louisiana expatriates. Houston's Fifth Ward, called "Frenchtown," in the 1950s and 1960s became a major venue for zydeco trios, consisting of accordion, drums, and frottoir, later augmented with guitar and saxophone.  Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band made regular weekly appearances at dances held in the parish hall of St. Francis of Assisi Church. (Clarence Garlow, another well-known Houston zydeco player and occasional club owner, launched the St. Francis events to pay down the parish's $250,000 debt.)  Chenier also is closely associated with the East Bay's "zydeco renaissance" of the 1960s and 1970s.

Missing picture of Clifton Chenier Born on a farm near Opelousas, Louisiana, on June 25, 1925, Chenier moved to Port Arthur, Texas, in 1947 and worked in the Gulf and Texaco refineries; he and his wife moved to Houston in 1958. Chenier's ascendancy to "King of Zydeco" came about through his introduction by Lightnin' Hopkins to Chris Strachwitz. (Chenier was a cousin of Lightnin' Hopkins' wife.) First issued on vinyl in the mid-1960s, "Louisiana Blues and Zydeco" (Arhoolie 1024, recorded in Houston in 1965),  "Black Snake Blues" (Arhoolie 1038, recorded in Berkeley in 1967), "Live" (Arhoolie 1059, recorded at St. Marks Hall, Richmond, in 1971,) and "Out West" (Arhoolie 1072, recorded in San Francisco in 1971) made Chenier's music available to an international audience. It's a likely bet, however, that the major markets for Chenier's R&B-influenced zydeco style remain the Texas Gulf, southwest Louisiana, and the Bay Area.  In addition to the now-famous St. Marks Hall dances, he also performed at the Avalon Ballroom and the 1982 San Francisco Blues Festival. Chenier died on December 12, 1987; his son C. L Chenier now leads the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Photo of Clifton Chenier at St. Mark's courtesy of Arhoolie Records.


Let the Good Times Roll: A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music by Pat Nyhan, et al. (1998, Upbeat Books, ISBN 0965823202)"From Gumbo to Grammys: The Development of Zydeco Music in Houston" by Lorenzo Thomas, from Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore, Francis E. Abernethy, et al., editors (1996, University of North Texas Press, ISBN 1-57441-018-0)

"Clifton Chenier, the King of Zydeco," a 1987 film produced and directed by Chris Strachwitz (55-minute VHS videotape distributed by Les Blank's Flower Films.)

Sidelight: Migration from the South to the East Bay in the 1940s

Abiding Courage.gif (39282 bytes) Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo's Abiding Courage : African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (1996, University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0807845639) traces the migration of African-American families from the rural south to the East Bay during World War II. The book details the challenges faced by women in establishing new homes and raising families while working in local shipyards and other war-related enterprises. Alexandra Tillman-Jennings' 98-year-old mother, Ethel Tillman, who made the trip from Mississippi to Vallejo in 1942 and later moved to Berkeley, plays an important role in the book. (Alexandra was the business manager of Chump Change Records.)

In 1998, Ethel Tillman featured in one of Belva Davis's "Bay Area Close-Up" reports for KRON-TV. Chump Change provided much of the video content for the segment. An update of the Ethel Tillman interview recently ran on Bay-TV's "Close-Up with Belva Davis."

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