Until Mance Lipscomb boarded a train in Houston and rode it until he arrived in Berkeley, California (three days later), he had never been more than 90 miles from where he was born in Navasota, Texas. The year was 1961, and Lipscomb was 65 -years-old. His poignant tale of traveling hundreds of miles alone toward, he knew not what, of not eating for three days because he could not find the dining car and was too shy to ask help from strangers, and of being scared of getting lost, is recounted in an interesting book, I Say Me A Parable, The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman. The author of the book, Glyn Alyn, spent hundreds of hours recording and transcribing the words of Mance Lipscomb as he told his life story.
This simple farmer could hardly have anticipated the monumental changes that were about to take place in his life. He came home one evening, sweaty and tired from a hard day's work and found two strangers sitting with his wife on the porch of their small house. Years later, in recalling the encounter, Lipscomb said, “Here I was an old farmer with his head hung down, given up on things and these people come along and gave me a whole new life with my music."
The newcomers were folk blues enthusiast Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick, a folklorist from the University of Texas. They had come to Navasota looking for Tom Moore, the notoriously cruel plantation owner that they had heard Lightnin' Hopkins sing about. Their inquiries led them to Lipscomb, who was well known in the community.
Lipscomb was somewhat annoyed by this unforeseen intrusion into his customary habit of an early supper and early bed. When the visitors asked him to sing and play something, he purposely did his worst, hoping to put ‘em off, so they would leave. They did leave, but not for long. Soon, this persistent pair of country blues buffs returned with their recording equipment and insisted on making some tapes. Fortunately for all, the old guitar player's spirits had been assuaged by a hot bath and his wife Elnora's good cooking. Mance was still a little skittish, but he recorded a lot of his songs for Strachwitz and McCormick.
Ironically, even though this was 1960, Lipscomb was completely mystified by the recording equipment, and had no idea what they were doing. As they were packing up to go, Strachwitz handed Lipscomb an envelope. After they were gone, he opened it to find $50, more than he had ever been paid for a gig! These tapes and subsequent ones made a few weeks later were the impetus for Strachwitz to start a record company, Arhoolie Records.
Mance Lipscomb was born on April 9, 1895, near the banks of the Navasota river bottoms of Brazos County, Texas. His father, Charlie, had been born in slavery and was sometimes a part-time sharecropper, but mostly an itinerant fiddle player. His mother, Janie, was one-half Choctaw Indian. Charlie didn't spend much time at home, but when he did, he and Janie were usually fighting. Mance, one time, said: 'Papa and her (mama) lived disagreeable.' However, Charlie was around home long enough to sire II children.
Mance's father did show an interest in his son's musical inclinations and taught him the rudiments of fiddle playing, but Mance never really caught on with the fiddle. But when his mother bought him an old guitar, he really took off. Before long, Mance was playing rhythm behind his father's fiddle and accompanying him to frolics that they called Saturday Night Suppers.
Even though Mance grew up in a seemingly isolated place, he was exposed to a wide variety of musical styles. Besides his father, a neighbor, Sam Collins, had an early influence on young Mance. He used to sneak into the cotton field beside Collins' house, after he got off from work and listen to him play his guitar.
Two minstrel show performers, Richard Dean and Hamp Walker, lived in Navasota, also. When they would return from the road, they brought songs from all over the country.
In 1917, Mance heard Blind Lemon Jefferson in Dallas. Blind Willie Johnson once spent some time playing on the streets of Navasota. Mance got one of his favorite songs, Motherless Children Sees a Hard Time, from him.
Both Jefferson and Johnson had a big influence on his blues guitar style. Later, while he was living in Houston, Mance played with Lightnin' Hopkins. In 1922, Jimmy Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman", played a concert in Navasota. Before he left town, he offered Mance a job touring with him. Mance didn't feel that he was ready to leave home yet and travel like Dean and Walker had done, so he declined. It would be 40 years before he would get another offer.
Mance's repertoire included not only blues, but popular songs, reels, shouts, folksongs, jump tunes, children songs, country, gospel, and anything else he felt like singing. Mance always took a lot of pride in the esteem and respect shown him by his community. He had always tried to live a dignified and upright life, even though he had been turned out of the church when he was 15 because he played the guitar. His respectability and maturity, even as a child, was probably the basis for a curious relationship with an adult.
In 1908, the legendary Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, came to Navasota to be the marshal and clean up the town. Mance was still a boy at that time, but the two struck up an acquaintance and became inseparable for the three years that Hamer was in town. Years later, Hamer received considerable fame as the one who killed Bonnie and Clyde.
From the time he was a teenager until he played the Berkeley Festival, there was hardly a weekend when Mance wasn't playing for a dance, a barbecue, or a Saturday Night Supper somewhere in the three-county area around his home that he referred to as his "precinct". He became a celebrity among the local dancers and party-goers. He was the first one called when a musician was needed.
Since he generally played for dances, Mance developed a hard driving but "supple and richly textured finger picking style that complemented his hushed, easy flowing vocals.” Commenting on Mance's style, Mack McCormick said, “He adapted his broad array of music into a single genre that would suit varied needs of his audience; the dancers, gamblers, children and women onlookers of the Saturday Night Suppers.
After he appeared at the Berkeley Festival before a crowd of 4,000 people, Mance spent the next 13 years traveling almost constantly, going from one job to another. He became one of the most popular artists on the folk/blues revival circuit, playing all the major festivals, colleges and coffee houses throughout the country. He recorded seven albums for Arhoolie and one for the Reprise label.
Mance's solemn dignity and masterful musicianship attracted him to other performers. He came to claim Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and many others as friends. Mance's life was well documented on film, having appeared in The Blues; The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins; Blues Like Showers of Rain; Out of the Black and Into the Blue; and A Well Spent Life. Indeed, Mance Lipscomb lived a well spent life. In 1974, he retired from public appearances and died two years later.