Mance Lipscomb – for me had a wonderfully gentle, sad but expressive voice – not particularly in the classic ‘work song’ blues style but more country inclined, but blues nonetheless. Doubly interesting as his father was an ex-slave and his mother a half Native American (Choctaw) thus positioning ‘Mance’ in that early post slavery era. Mance led a very interesting and well documented life
The music of Texan Mance Lipscomb opens a window on the musical culture of African Americans in the early twentieth century, before the blues became a dominant genre. Mance Lipscomb sang and played the blues, but he rejected the label of ‘blues musician’ in favour of ‘songster’, which covered the much wider range of musical types that were part of his repertoire. Discovered by a wider audience during the folk revival of the 1960s, Lipscomb performed for large audiences nationwide until his death in 1976.
Bodyglin (or Bowdie Glenn) Lipscomb was born in Navasota, Texas, northwest of Houston, on April 9, 1895. His father had been a slave in Alabama, and he acquired the name Lipscomb when he was sold to a Texas family of that name. Lipscomb took the nickname Mance to honour a friend named Emancipation who had died. Music ran in Lipscomb’s family and after his mother bought him a guitar when he was 11, he began accompanying his fiddler father at local dances. Before long, Lipscomb was in demand for ‘Saturday Night Suppers’ in and around Grimes County, Texas.
In addition to his family, Lipscomb picked up musical pointers from Texas blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. A travelling performer asked Lipscomb to go on tour in 1922, but Lipscomb said no, and until the 1960s he rarely left the area in which he was born. He married his wife Elnora around 1913 and the two stayed married for the rest of Lipscomb’s life, raising one son, Mance Jr., three adopted children, and numerous grandchildren. He worked as a tenant farmer (he disliked the term ‘sharecropper’) for various employers, and most of his musical appearances were at local functions. In contrast to the stereotypical hard-living blues musician, he never gambled and rarely consumed alcohol.
Lipscomb did leave the Navasota area occasionally. He is known to have met Texas blues guitarist Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins in Galveston in1938. In 1956 Lipscomb hit a foreman who had mistreated his wife and mother; he had to leave town quickly and worked for several years in Houston, playing in bars and working in a lumberyard. The incident occurred on the farm of Tom Moore, and Lipscomb later recorded a ballad about the harsh conditions there, “Tom Moore’s Farm.” It was released anonymously, for Lipscomb’s own protection. In A Well-Spent Life, a documentary about Lipscomb made by filmmaker Les Blank, the musician characterized the attitude of white farm owners this way: “Mule die, they buy another one; nigger die, they hire another one.”
Things finally simmered down, and Lipscomb, with money saved from his work in Houston, bought land and built a house in Navasota. He got a job with a highway construction company, and one day in 1960 encountered music researchers Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick on a job site. They were looking for ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins, who had just left the area, but they agreed to listen to Lipscomb’s music instead. Strachwitz was in the process of forming his California-based record company, Arhoolie, and a group of songs recorded around Lipscomb’s kitchen table were put together on the album ‘Mance Lipscomb: Texas Songster and Sharecropper’, Arhoolie’s debut release.
Lipscomb’s name quickly became well known among blues and folk music fans. He appeared at the Texas Heritage Festival in Houston in 1960 and 1961, then capitalized on his California connection and made appearances for three years running (1961-63) at the large Berkeley Folk Festival held at the University of California. In between festival appearances he appeared at folk coffeehouses in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, and he made several more recordings for Arhoolie.
What made Lipscomb stand out from the other Southern blues performers recorded during this period was the diversity of his material. His recordings provided examples of song and dance forms with both white and black roots–waltzes, two-steps, children’s songs, jigs, reels, polkas, and a few others that Lipscomb named in his autobiography, ‘I Say Me for a Parable’, (meaning, “I give myself as an example”).
Many of these were African-American dance forms from early in the twentieth century, before the blues became popular among blacks and then turned into a nationwide craze. Perhaps Lipscomb’s relative isolation in rural east Texas, far from the Mississippi River migration routes that shaped the blues, explained the preservation of these older forms in his music. For Lipscomb, the blues was only one type of music among many.
As well as Frank Sinatra, a big fan was Texan-born Americana singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who was drawn to another aspect of Lipscomb’s music: his intricate guitar work. In a ‘No Depression’ article, Earle wrote that “as a finger-style guitarist, Mance had few peers (Mississippi John Hurt, Merle Watson, and Chet Atkins are the only names that come to mind), and any Lipscomb recording is a case study in how to get folks up out of their seats armed only with a single guitar…. The truth was, if you had Mance, you didn’t need a band.”
Despite his success, Lipscomb avoided the trappings of luxury. He did, however, buy a set of dentures with a golden guitar stamped on the inside. Lipscomb suffered from heart trouble in the mid-1970s and gradually retired from the stage. ‘I Say Me for a Parable’ was compiled by Texas author Glen Alyn from conversations with Lipscomb, which Lipscomb agreed to on condition that the two share any profits from the book equally. Alyn kept his end of the bargain, splitting the profits with Lipscomb’s family after the musician’s death. ‘I Say Me for a Parable’, told entirely in Lipscomb’s own voice and dialect without editing, later won a Music Book of the Year award.
Mance passed away in Navasota on January 30, 1976.