Years prior to the blues being recognized as a commercially viable genre, Texan Mance Lipscomb was 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 himself rejected this categorization, preferring to be classified as a "songster," which reflected the great diversity of his wide-ranging repertoire. This diversity and his intricate guitar work is what 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, Mance himself began playing guitar. Before long he 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 such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as the groundbreaking country star Jimmie Rogers. Although a traveling performer invited Lipscomb to go on the road in 1922, he declined the invitation and until the blues revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, rarely left home and most of his live performances were 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 Texas blues great Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, whom Lipscomb had become friends with 20 years prior, when they first met in Galveston. In fact 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. This chance encounter would mark the beginning of Lipscomb's recording career at age 65. Twenty-three songs were recorded during this initial encounter, ranging from ballads and barrelhouse songs to blues, reels and one religious song. The resulting album, Mance Lipscomb: Texas Songster and Sharecropper, would begin a decade of involvement in the folk-song and blues revival, during which Lipscomb would finally gain wider acclaim and recognition for his virtuosity as a guitarist and the breadth of his wide-ranging repertoire.
This recording is a testament to the skill and passion of one of the blues' most under appreciated musicians. Though Lipscomb will probably never receive the plaudits he deserves, those in the know will rejoice at the chance to hear the man at his best.
Written by Alan Bershaw