Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Cover story: "Houston Bound"

Tyina L. Steptoe is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arizona.

Her new book is Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City. Here Steptoe explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins lopes down a city street in a black residential area of Houston. His guitar is tucked under his right arm and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. This image of Hopkins, captured by fellow musician Ed Badeaux, first appeared on the cover of Hopkins’s 1961 album, “Walkin’ This Road by Myself.” The image currently graces the cover of my book, Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City. In addition to using Hopkins’s image, I also took the book’s title from a 1962 song he recorded called “Houston Bound.” The photograph and song appealed to me because both convey the idea of movement.

Houston Bound is a book about migrants, specifically black East Texans, Creoles of color from Louisiana, Tejanos, and Mexicans who moved to the city between the 1920s and 1960s. As these groups settled in Houston, they challenged notions of race, especially the meanings of blackness and whiteness. Born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, Hopkins moved to the city in the late 1930s. His songs show the significance of mobility to him and the other Houston transplants who populate the pages of my book.

Before moving permanently to Houston, Hopkins spent some time working as a sharecropper. Planting and plowing on rented land gave his life a sense of confinement. He was bound by contract to a parcel of land, and endless cycles of debt often kept sharecroppers like him tied to a white landowner’s property. But the songs Hopkins recorded as a blues performer portray a man who had found freedom in mobility. He stopped farming to pursue work as a bluesman. Soon, he was wandering the roads of eastern Texas as an itinerant musician. In the process, he transformed from a sharecropper into a man with the ability to roam.

Recorded in New York City in 1960, the song “Houston Bound” further emphasizes migration and mobility, while also establishing the musician’s ties to his adopted hometown. The lyrics place him in New York, which he portrays as a temporary lover: “I’m so sorry to leave you, baby, but darling, I really got to say goodbye.” In the second verse, Hopkins’s virtuosic guitar playing provides sonic clues about the significance of mobility and his ties to Houston. When he sings, “My plane leaves early in the morning,” his fingers skillfully climb toward higher notes, mimicking his ascension into the skies. But when he proclaims, “Po’ Lightnin’ just gotta be Houston bound,” his fingers gravitate to lower notes that ground him back at home in Texas. By the time he recorded the song, he was no longer a sharecropper or an itinerant musician from East Texas searching for the next barn party. His work as a professional musician took him to places like New York, but he had a new home in the city of Houston. Like the image of Hopkins walking with his guitar, the song “Houston Bound” asserts a black Texan’s mobility in a society that often trapped and confined people like him.
Learn more about Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue