Guitar virtuoso Mance Lipscomb - the last minstrel

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Guitar virtuoso Mance Lipscomb - the last minstrel

Mance Lipscomb, guitarist and songwriter, was born in 1895 to Charles and Jane Lipscomb, in the Brazos River bottoms over near Navasota, where he lived most of his life as a tenant farmer. His father was an Alabama slave who was given the name Lipscomb when he was sold to a Texas family of that name. Lipscomb dropped his given name, Bowdie Glenn, and named himself Mance when a friend, an old man called Emancipation, passed away. Lipscomb and Elnora, his wife of sixty-three years, had one son, Mance Jr., three adopted children, and twenty-four grandchildren.
Lipscomb represented one of the last remnants of the nineteenth-century minstrel tradition, which predated the development of the blues. Though minstrels might incorporate blues into their repertoires, as did Lipscomb, they performed a wide variety of material in diverse styles, much of it common to both black and white traditions in the South, including ballads, rags, dance pieces (breakdowns, waltzes, one and two steps, slow drags, reels, ballin' the jack, the buzzard lope, hop scop, buck and wing, heel and toe polka), and popular, sacred, and secular songs. Lipscomb himself insisted that he was a songster, not a guitarist or "blues man" since he played "all kinds of music." His eclectic repertoire has been reported to have contained 350 pieces spanning two centuries. (He likewise took exception when he was labeled a "sharecropper" instead of a "farmer.")
Lipscomb was born into a musical family and began playing at an early age. His father was a fiddler, his uncle played the banjo, and his brothers were guitarists. His mother bought him a guitar when he was eleven, and he was soon accompanying his father, and later entertaining alone, at suppers and Saturday night dances. Although he had some contact with such early recording artists as fellow Texans Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson and early country star Jimmie Rodgers, he did not make recordings until his "discovery" by whites during the folk-song revival of the 1960s.
Between 1905 and 1956 he lived in an atmosphere of poverty, farming as a tenant for a number of landlords in and around Grimes County, including the notorious Tom Moore, subject of a famous local ballad. He left Moore's employ abruptly and went into hiding after he struck a foreman for abusing his mother and wife. Lipscomb's own rendition of "Tom Moore's Farm" was taped at his first session in 1960 but released anonymously, presumably to protect the singer from retribution. Between 1956 and 1958 Lipscomb lived in Houston, working for a lumber company during the day and playing at night in bars where he vied for audiences with Texas blues great Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, whom Lipscomb had first met in Galveston in 1938. With compensation from an on-the-job accident, he returned to Navasota and was finally able to buy some land and build a house of his own. He was working as foreman of a highway-mowing crew in Grimes County when blues researchers Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records and Mack McCormick of Houston found and recorded him in 1960.
His encounter with Strachwitz and McCormick marked the beginning of over a decade of involvement in the folk-song revival, during which Lipscomb won wide acclaim and emulation from young white audiences and performers for his virtuosity as a guitarist and the breadth of his repertoire. Admirers enjoyed his lengthy reminiscences and eloquent observations regarding music and life, many of which are contained in taped and written materials in the Mance Lipscomb-Glenn Myers Collection in the archives and manuscripts section of the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He made numerous recordings and appeared at such festivals as the Berkeley Folk Festival of 1961, where he played before a crowd of more than 40,000. In clubs Lipscomb often shared the bill with young revivalists or rock bands. He was also the subject of a film, A Well-Spent Life (1970), made by Les Blank. Despite his popularity, however, he remained poor. After 1974 declining health confined him to a nursing home and hospitals. He died in Grimes Memorial Hospital, Navasota, on January 30, 1976, and was buried at West Haven Cemetery. 
John Minton

Here is the unedited text of a typewritten flyer placed on Navasota bulletin boards by Mance, offering to teach guitar lessons (Sept 1968 at age 73):

Lessens for yongesters $3
I begin to Play a guitar when was the age of 14 for Scool Programs and contry Dances and Partyies.
I Lerned Songs by Hearing them by ear. My father Played Vionlin. I would Play guitar music Because I Liked it.
I Has Played guitar over 59 years. I was Descoverd in 1961. I Has Ben in 12 Stetes. I lever lift Navasota until I Was call to the Berkely folk festial in 1961.
I was Born on April, 1895. I was Raised on a farm. at the age of a 11, I Had to do a mans Work to Support my family.
I Had a Hard Life. I Has did all Sort of Hard Work, and musik Has made my Life Better. I Still Love to Play my music.
I Hope you Studens Will learn my music.

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