Chapter Eight: The Songster from Navasota



The “Songster”


Navasota, Texas, the “Official Blues Capital of Texas.”  That sounded good to local blues enthusiasts, our Chamber of Commerce, and even the State Legislature.  Still, we did not have Mance Lipscomb’s guitar, his hat, not even his thumbpick. All we had was a weekend blues festival once a year in August. It was great, but a capital sits 52 weeks out of the year.

We started a blues museum, but no one had any original photographs, concert posters, or personal mementos.  Sure we had a few of the old albums, but people were coming from all over the world to see the Blues Capital of Texas, and we had no remnant left of Mance Lipscomb, or any of our other blues musicians, to show blues lovers.

Finally, something surfaced. It was a needle in a haystack.  In a box, at a garage sale in Bryan.  Something precious left behind in a rent house.  A whole strip of really large negatives of Mance Lipscomb in his own back yard, right here in Navasota.  Thank goodness, Rick Valadez, the garage sale bargain hunter, suspected that they might be important.  Ruins of an old cattle pen sit in the background, perhaps the same one that appeared in Blank’s movie made near Millican. Mance strums his old Harmony guitar, the real one, with his initials decaled on it.  His wife poses meekly in one, as they look upon a scrapbook.  Perhaps the author had made it, and they were gazing upon his legacy.  We will never know.
             Mance Lipscomb around 1962.

Yes, the negatives showed considerable wear, if not some problems with the film development.  Some of them had probably never been printed. They are believed to have been made by a semi-professional itinerant photographer.  Perhaps they were just a photographic catastrophe, and a great disappointment to him, yet he did not have the heart to throw them away. Later I spotted one of the shots in a collage on the backside of one of Mance’s albums made with Arhoolie. We are still not sure who made the actual photographs.

Thanks to modern digital technology, his photographs could be restored and enjoyed for all blues lovers, and Navasota has a genuine, rare, historic and exciting blues artifact. And gradually, we are piecing the story together, the sometimes confusing things not really explained in the book about Mance…

        Mance, Lightnin’ and Billy Bizor cut up for Les Blank’s 1968 movie about Texas blues, called The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins.

 We are lucky to have many of his family mambers to talk to.  I have come to know personally several of his heirs, children and grandchildren, especially Annie Hall and Richard Lipscomb. Many of his grandchildren were raised as his own. Of particular note was a convesation I had with one of his sons...

 John Lockett glided into the Navasota Bluesfest, decked out in a dapper bone-colored suit and fedora, shades, and a face that looked like, well, Mance Lipscomb.  But I took one glance and surmised he was a writer for a Houston R&B magazine, or something like that.  Busy with my Bluesfest duties, I never imagined I would find out.

Later Grimes County Sheriff Sowell introduced us. There we were, three of us, two of us just history lovers, and one a walking blues history interactive center. “Mance was my father,” he began, and I don’t remember his exact words after that, as I went into shock.  The name alone had me perplexed, but I was soon to understand.  John explained that he was an “outside” child as they used to say, and Mance brought him to meet Elnora and live with them when he was six.  After the shock wore off, she never treated him any different than the other children.  John often played the drums when his father performed, and other family members occasionally accompanied Mance as well, as Mance had done for his father. He gave me this story there at the Bluesfest... and I will tell it like I remember it...

“I was the business minded son, and I was the one who read his contracts for him…” John explained. “One night I’ll never forget, we had played for several hours, and I was gettin’ tired.  I knew that the contract said that he would play for so many hours and get paid for those hours.  But he just kept on playin’, and about an hour had passed and I said ‘Papa, you keep on playin’, but we were through around ten o’clock, and all this you’re doin’, you ain’t gettin’paid!’  He said, ‘There’s still people dancin,’ so we’ll keep on playin.’  And I said, ‘Well I don’t know about you, but I’m through!’ and I put down the drumsticks. .. But he kept on playin’ all by himself, and played until the people quit dancin’.   Sometimes he would play all night long like that.  He didn’t care what the contract said…”

Lockett admitted that his father was a hard act to follow, and his lifelong legacy had been an inspiration.  He made his own career in the U. S. Army, serving for 23 years.  After he graduated from college, he became a history instructor at Houston Community College, where he still works in the registrar’s office. His father’s attitude of sacrifice and service to his community was impressed on him early, and he never forgot it.  His honesty and integrity were without peer.  “I think about what he did,” he said, “bringing me to his wife like that, and telling her, ‘This is my son and I could never deny that he is mine,’ that took a lot of guts.  I don’t know, if that was me, whether I could’ve done that!”  John humbly smiled with a twinkle in his eye.  It was a faraway look of respect and wonder.  For a moment, as I looked in that face, with Mance written all over it, and studied his warm eyes, I thought I could see what he was looking at.

Mance was one of those straight shooters who never cared about the limelight or the money. He played for the love of the music. And he loved people and the truth to a fault. The trait that kept him close to home and near his loved ones, which included numerous adopted children, kept him out of danger, addiction and destructive living. And it kept him alive for another generation, to teach his songs and guitar techniques. But one has to wonder, where did such character come from, when surrounded by so many less than stellar role models?

When just a boy, not long after his own father had left for good, Mance was befriended by Navasota’s young Marshal, Frank Hamer, who became an instant hero in his eyes. Hamer was an intrepid west Texas Cowboy, recently recruited by the Texas Rangers. With the help of the Governor, he was hired in 1908 by the Navasota City Council to clean up the violent factions in Navasota, where classes and races were in constant conflict. Hamer treated everyone the same, ended much of the lawlessness, and by 1911 moved on to national fame, becoming one of the most feared and respected lawmen of the American West.

Mance often drove his buggy for him, and would always remember him as “Hayman,” the Law that tamed Navasota, who made it safe for women and children and Black people. The security he felt during this time of protection may very well have given him the impetus and courage to sing his songs.

                    Texas Ranger and soon to be Navasota Marshal, Frank Hamer around 1908.

Like many Blues musicians, he was largely self-taught, generating a unique style of music that gave him a release from the toils of share-cropping, while it entertained people from all walks of life. He was best remembered as a local entertainer that crossed all social and racial barriers with ease. 

 When Mance was finally discovered in the 60’s he had put to memory over 300 songs. He had sat beside Blind Willie Johnson as early as 1916, and learned his slide guitar tricks. He had seen Blind Lemon Jefferson play in Ft Worth several times between 1917 and 1920.  He had played for Jimmie Rodgers right in his own neighborhood.  He had rivaled with Lightning Hopkins in Houston, who seemed to know better than to be put up against him. And he lived to impress a whole new batch of American legends who came to hear him play. Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Leon Russell, and even Frank Sinatra once asked for a private concert on his yacht. Like some of his own idols, Mance became a legend in his own time, personally demonstrating his guitar techniques to Rock & Roll greats who sought him out.

Mance rarely had accompaniment, and learned to strum an amazing weave of lead, rhythm and bass guitar combinations to make his songs as rich and engaging as possible. And he shared his fiercely practiced and unique style with great dignity and humility.

His self described "songster" label is worth noting. Mance knew that aspiring young musicians were clamoring to learn from him, and the first thing was, don’t box yourself in. Avoid a label that will restrict your artistic experimentation. He had learned many different songs from a handful of genres. The songs had served him well over the years as he played for very different crowds from one end of town to the other. And it was always nice to have something to play that folks could dance to. Blues by themselves would be like all work and no play. Mance could play reels, waltzes, folk, ballads, and even a few early rock favorites. He could do Blind Willie Johnsons gospel, Blind Lemon’s wailing blues, Leadbelly’s folk classics, prison work songs and Traditional dance songs. Mance’s intent was to be a diversified entertainer, and blues were just one of his arrows. I know of few musicians who would argue with this approach. 

At the same time that his versatility made him a popular dance personality, conversely it may have also kept him from screwing down a nice packaged identity that would have brought his talent out the bottoms. The blues purists are only frustrated by his diversity in their self-inhibiting pigeon-holes. Critics are usually put off by versatility, and are looking for marketable styles that feed the latest trends, not somebody really good at playing music that has been around for fifty years. But Mance was quite eclectic and followed his artistic sensibility. If he liked a song, he was going to learn it.

Over the years he met many musicians who inspired him. He loved to listen to the Mexican musicians who passed through every cotton picking season. They picked cotton all day and sang all night long. He would happily stand in the distance and drink in the Spanish guitars as they played around the fire as if it was a public live music concert. One of the earliest bluesmen to light his flame up close was barrel house pianist Blind Bob Conner whom he would try to accompany with his old beat up guitar. Another was Son McFarland, who taught him a couple of his future classics in 1914.  The next year while out cotton picking up in the north end of the Navasota Valley, he met Tom and Gummy Meigs of Ennis, Tx and gathered that musicians were happy, well adjusted folk who could actually do what they love, for money. 

Around 1917 Mance first saw the legendary Blind lemon Jefferson, and gazed enviously on the man’s command of his songs and his audience. He never thought he could ever be that good. Other professionals continued to hang out with him and encourage him. Richard Dean of Conroe, and Hamp Walker, both professional travelling musicians with the  Barnum & Bailey Circus sideshow, brought him tricks and licks every year in the off season. They always had the latest scoop on the new and popular songs of the day.

Robert Timm served up his first real blues, which really got him going. Finally he had a focus to shoot for.

Locally, there was Sam Collins, Isom Willis and Ralph Lipscomb his older brother, who was always ahead of him when he was young, and he always looked up to him.

And one day in the 1920's, Mance was fetched to play for a big star passing through, something to entertain the man known as the Blue Yodeler. Jimmie Rodgers was so impressed he tried to hire Mance to go with him on his tour. It might have been a much different life, if he had gone. And that is probably why he stayed in Blues Valley. Rodgers was an avid blues lover, and had gotten great inspiration from Texas bluesmen while working as a railroad section hand. But it was not to be. But the visit had served one big purpose, as Mance finally got artistic validation from somebody who should know. That made a lot of difference to him. But still, he was happy with the simple tenant farming, family friendly life he lived.

Over the years Mance had mastered hundreds of songs, and thank goodness to two determined folklorists, he recorded many of them. He was tracked down in 1960 by Houston music folklorist Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records while he was still eking out a living by mowing the highway right-of-ways for the Texas Highway Department.  With their help, he quickly became a Texas legend as he played in clubs and concerts all over the United States, from Boston to Berkeley, and became a favorite in Austin, playing several times at the Armadillo World Headquarters.

This was a long awaited decade of sudden glory and praise, after lifetime of weekend gigs in backwater honky tonks.  Mance eventually made seven albums, and recorded much more.  He is recognized as the authentic blues link between the old blues masters of the thirties and the seventies folk-blues revival. He wore his mantle with soft charm and unpretentious dignity, and true humility. I would love to write a book about this most decent and talented man, but someone already has.

Glen Alyn captured him flawlessly in I Say Me A Parable. Mel Blanc caught him lovingly in a movie short called A Well Spent life. Mance may be one of the most scrupulously captured and immortalized folk musicians of all time.

Many people today still claim to have known him, and I still meet people who proudly tell their Mance stories. The strange thing about him was not his talent or success or fame, but his lack of fanfare and the way his own hometown reacted to him. To say that Navasota is a hard town to impress is insufficient. He lived, played, rose to national fame and yet died in relative obscurity in his hometown.

Veteran performers love to tell their own Mance stories as they visit and play in Navasota; Especially the Austin musicians like Bob Livingston, George Ensle, Ray Wylie Hubbard. They all speak of him as if he were a personal treasure. Hubbard was once recruited by Mance’s booking agent to take Mance with another friend to one of his gigs in Oklahoma. Mance did not drive such distances. They had to drive down from Dallas to get him and then transport the old gentleman to Tulsa and then back again. There was something special about his demeanor and humility. It was an acquaintance and a trip he would always remember. 

Today the cotton and the farms are almost gone, and the old plantation system with them, but the music endures.  Today blues music is popular all over the world.


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