Mance Lipscomb, a tenant farmer, and laborer, became one of the most influential blues musicians of the twentieth century.
Mance Lipscomb was born Beau D. Glen Lipscomb to Charles and Jane Lipscomb on April 9, 1895. He was born in Navasota, a town that would become known as the “Blues Capital of Texas” and where he would remain for the rest of his life. His first taste of music was watching his father play fiddle on Saturday nights, performing at local dances or country music breakdowns as they were known. These events often took place at someone’s house and would often go on for hours. By the time Mance was fifteen, he had learned enough guitar to accompany his father and soon garnered a reputation as a master guitar picker.
Over the next four decades, Lipscomb would be a regular player all over Navasota and Grimes County. His expertise on the guitar and knowledge of a wide variety of songs meant that he was in demand. On Fridays and Sundays, he would play for events held by the white community, and on Saturdays he would play at the supper parties held by the black community. Locally, he was widely regarded as the best guitar player in the area.
Nothing exceptional would happen for Mance until the summer of 1960 when he encountered blues enthusiasts Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick. The two men had originally intended to try and record Houston blues singer, Lightnin’ Hopkins, but their plans fell through and on a whim, they headed to East Texas looking for authentic blues musicians to record. When they reached Navasota and asked for the best musician in town, everyone they asked said Mance Lipscomb. They drove to Lipscomb’s house, introduced themselves, and pulled out a tape recorder. That night Lipscomb’s professional music career began.
On the way back to Houston, Strachwitz decided to open his own record label using Lipscomb’s recordings as the first release. The name of the record label was Arhoolie Records and Mance would go on to record six albums worth of material for them. The first release was to be called “Mance Lipscomb – Sharecropped and Songster” and featured a wide variety of songs that Mance had learned over a lifetime of performing. On that first night of recording, Lipscomb had performed approximately twenty-five songs for Strachwitz and McCormick. However, this was just a small selection of his songs. Mance had an incredible repertoire of around three hundred fifty songs including original compositions he had written. Although he would be known as a Texas blues musician, Lipscomb actually preferred the term “songster”. This term referred to a music tradition that predated the relatively newer blues genre. It encompassed a wide variety of work songs and spirituals that were sung at the turn of the century and had more in common with early folk traditions.
After the release of the first recordings by Arhoolie, Lipscomb began to get recognition beyond Grimes County. In 1961 Frank Sinatra’s record label Reprise released a new album by Lipscomb titled “Trouble in Mind”. Sinatra himself would even record a version of the title track. That same year Lipscomb traveled beyond Texas for the first time to perform at the Berkeley Folk Festival. Folk icons like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez came to watch him play. Dylan even traveled to Navasota to play with Lipscomb at his home.
One of the most significant points in Lipscomb’s career in the early 1960s was backing Janis Joplin during her 1962 performance at the live venue, Threadgill’s in Austin. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship between the two musicians but more importantly, Lipscomb broke the color barrier by playing at the previously segregated Threadgill’s. Lipscomb’s popularity saw him share the stage with numerous well-known names in music including Muddy Waters, and, opening for well-known acts like the Grateful Dead.
By the 1970s Lipscomb had been all over America and played to thousands of people. He had garnered celebrity fans that included President Johnson and had even had a film made about him. Yet through all of this, there had been little in the way of media promotion or even significant changes to his own life at home. For most of his life, Mance Lipscomb was a farmer and laborer who simply played music on the weekends. He didn’t become well-known on the national stage until he was in his sixties, yet the impact he made on American musicians and their music cannot be underestimated. Although he may not have had the commercial success of some of his contemporaries, his influence on their own music was incredible.
In 1976 Lipscomb died of heart failure bought on by a stroke. He had already begun to experience health issues and was living in a nursing home in Navasota. Even though his professional music career did not start until he was already in his sixtieth decade, his contributions in the 1960s left an indelible mark on the American music scene. Mance Lipscomb never reached the same levels of fame as other blues musicians, yet he stood apart from others due to his unique ability to recall and perform hundreds of songs from a wide range of genres.
Lipscomb was one of the last true American songsters and his contributions to Texas music led to a renewed interest in Navasota’s music history. For two decades, the Navasota Blues Festival was held in his honor and in 2011, Navasota unveiled a life-size sculpture of Mance playing his guitar at the entrance of the park that bears his name.
Today, Lipscomb is synonymous with Texas blues, his name standing alongside more famous Texans such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He bought national recognition to East Texas and his music bridge the generation gap while simultaneously breaking the color barriers of the time. His influence can be heard in the music of current Texas artists as much as it can in the classic recordings of artists like Sinatra and Dylan. More than a century after he was born, Lipscomb’s musicality remains as relevant as ever.