Lightnin’ Hopkins

July 31, 2007

The lyrics of “Lightnin’ Hopkins” effectively combine two of Michael Stipe’s major obsessions — the culture of the deep south, and the art of photography and cinema. It’s important to note that the rural scenery and the people described in the song are only presented in terms of how they are being filmed, which quietly suggests to the listener that it’s important to consider the way the place and its culture is represented to those outside of it, and by who, and how, and why. The words sketch out a set of distinct images and hint at something specific, but there’s not much in the way of context, and it’s unclear why the Texan blues guitarist Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins is being invoked at all, or why the song bears his name.

Bill Berry’s drumming on “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is undoubtedly his most busy and frenetic performance on any R.E.M. record. The beat sounds a bit like a dribbling basketball at the start of the track, and so it’s actually quite difficult for me to hear the song without thinking of the game. On top of that impression, I have a vague recollection of hearing the song in a basketball highlights reel on television a long time ago, but I’m not sure whether or not that actually happened.

45 Responses to “Lightnin’ Hopkins”

  1. narcizo Says:

    I think I read somewhere that that song has absolutely no meaning at all; my guess is that they were goofing around and it ended up like this.
    “Hairshirt”, for example, is written the same way, yet it’s a more acoustic and somber tune.
    And, yeah, Berry’s drums kick ass; the intro part is played with a single petal bass drum, and it’s rather difficult for the average drummer to play…
    …tell me about it!

  2. I think there’s a really big difference between “I sat down and wrote something without knowing exactly what I wanted to say before doing it” and “there is no meaning to what I wrote.” I think very often people arrive at very complex ideas without intending to do so, especially when they are writing in a way that in some way connects with their unconscious mind.

  3. jim jos Says:

    What a great song to discuss on Bill’s Birthday! Nice Going! “Kick Ass” is how I would describe the drumming here, like was mentioned dead on by narcizo.
    Happy Birthday Bill Berry!

    Maybe the lyrics are just kind of fun and meaningless
    but maybe also….

    The lyrics, as studied so well again by Matthew, do invoke both the South and film.

    There is a film, a documentary, about Lightin Hopkins called The Blues According to Lightin Hopkins.
    filmed on location in Texas. Perhaps its nothing, but maybe Stipe has seen this documentary, and remembered it and put it to lyric.

    The film was shown at a Chicago film festival, and when it came time for best documentary, Lightin won.

    Hopkins seems like a real life character that you could find in Fables, or the type of guy that Stipe would go out to Philomath and visit. So you have perhaps three themes going on here lyrically.
    1. South
    2. Camera
    3. Wise older characters invoked in such songs as “Maps and Legends” and “Life and How to Live It”

  4. I had no idea about Bill’s birthday, but wow, yeah, good timing!

  5. narcizo Says:

    …my mistake; there was actually a band member that made that particular comment about the song (Buck, I think) – perhaps I didn’t make that clear.
    Although I totally agree with you on that.

  6. 2d Says:

    and here i always thought it was about some guy getting electrocuted… and those were the final, surreal thoughts passing through that person’s head in the instant the lightnin’ passed through his body. “shows the water pan the track” made me think of the sponge used to wet the head of the person on the electric chair… but the really scary part was… “lightnin’ won” 😐

  7. RPI Says:

    I’d always heard it as “Lightning One”. Huh.

    I think this is one of Stipe’s more unusual vocals. I love his phrasing and the phonetic denseness of the words: “Because it’s cold down gold down there”. More than anything I love the yelled end to each verse: “Crow!”

  8. transformerdog Says:

    my vending machine business in the San Diego area is called Lightning Won Refreshments so if you need a vending machine in your office/work space gimme a holler:) (Matthew, I can’t believe you didn’t know it was Bill’s Bday..!!!…but that does give me insight into something I’ve wondered about , ie, how much do you read our comments ?..the lovely Kirsten mentioned this yesterday…..I hate one way relatinships ): Here I thought you hung on our words the way we hang on yours..)

  9. transformerdog Says:

    raucous delirious fun , almost as much in that nonsensical giddy direction/vein as Just A Touch…..My preferred interpretation of the Lightning Won lyric is that ..the lightning won out , the flash of insight won , knowledge and instinct won out in the end over the stultifying life-deadening bullshit I was fed as a kid ..I always knew better but I finally saw it clearly enough (with the help of some very good books ) to overcome the fear and GO FOR IT YEAH!!!!!!!!!!! THE LIGHTNING WON , ha, take that you weasels and dweebs and meatheads , I’m free of your crap –and you know who you are although it’s highly doubtful you’d be on this site, you’re too stupid and unenlightened and AGAINST LIVING YOU ARE ..It ties in with my business in the sense that when the SD Chargers win everybody is happy and that’s a really good thing in any business , you need a good vibe so folks will spend a couple nickels…(although I am Pittsburgh Steelers all the way , gonna win our sixth Super Bowl this year …Shit , I may have just sabotaged any chance of turning a profit:)) Hey, HQ, younz guys need a vending machine or two ? Hey Millzy, how’s about some financial backing?

  10. Justin Says:

    I read somewhere that during the recording of Document Peter Buck had been record shopping and brought a Lightnin’ Hopkins album into the studio with him. Stipe saw it and was taken with the name and in characteristically eccentric fashion declared he would name a song “Lightnin’ Hopkins”. That’s Peter’s story anyway.

    I’ve always thought Stipe’s vocal performance on this one was really neat. Kind of a throwback to the days of old, that.

  11. 2d Says:

    transformerdog – take a deeeep slow breath… and maybe a beer 😛

  12. transformerdog Says:

    ??where do you get that at , that they’re only being presented “in terms of how they are being filmed” ??

  13. transformerdog Says:

    2d, aren’t you the same chap who was talking about the tinny guitar sound of approacning death in HST a while back and now you’re talking about electrocution here ??:) “the slow current of swell bead death” is a line from a poem of mine (I think that’s original , may have unconsciously plagarized that somewhere down the line..) Damn Dude, and you look like such a happy well adjusted fellow in your photo:)

  14. 2d Says:

    well that photo was taken on one of my good days 😛 on a regular day i can pass for the protagonist of tim burton’s “vincent”

    as for the song, it really has a eerie feel to it, doesn’t it? and the lyrics are so vague that each mind can wrap a different understanding around them without seeming out of place (i think i just described the way early r.e.m. works) – and you gotta admit, the quacky michael vocals don’t exactly scream “shiny happy people”. 🙂

    now if you’ll excuse me, i have to feed abercrombie.

  15. jim jos Says:

    September 1st is the 20th anniversary of Document, I am expecting Rolling Stone magazine to do a cover story on it.

  16. I don’t read all the comments, especially when they get really long and I don’t know what anyone is talking about. In part, that’s because my life lately has been really, really, really busy and strange.

  17. Ignis Sol Says:

    Matthew’s “are only presented in terms of how they are being filmed,” point is clear to me:

    Flat lands low lands on the track
    Shows the water pan (the camera needs to pan) the track
    Lightnin’ won lightnin’ won
    Close up (CU, a camera direction) hands to silhouette, crow! (a camera close-up of the shadow figure the hands are making on a surface, in this case a bird or a crow)
    We have done that shadow bird figure on a wall, right?

    Lightnin’ won, lightnin’ won (lighnin’ is like a camera flash going off to take a picture)

    the lightnin’ wins because it captures something physically and metaphorically. And this songs seems to mean something.

    When I was studying photography in college, I was playing with my flash device. A neighbor called and asked, “Did you know that there is lightening going off in your bedroom?” And aburptly hung up.

    My favorite part/line: Low lands timberlands bad lands bird lands

    How many lands are there? High lands, shadow lands, etc… awesome

  18. 2d Says:

    this is what i love about this blog. picking up on so many new things about the songs i thought i knew for quite some time. fascinating.

  19. David T. Says:

    > And, yeah, Berry’s drums kick ass; the intro part is played with a single petal bass drum, and it’s rather difficult for the average drummer to play…
    …tell me about it!

    Wow! I always loved the sound and the pattern of Bill’s intro part, but had no clue he used a single bass pedal to play it…”rather difficult” is an understatement, especially considering that he’s keeping the hi-hat and snare going in perfect synch at the same time he’s playing the kick drum part.

    Thanks for that tidbit, Narcizo!

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Believe it or not, I actually have something intelligent to add to this train of thought. In African American culture/literature the traveling blues musician is a larger metaphor. The blues traveler is the modern incarnation of the griot – the ancient African tribal wandering storyteller – and hence serves as the person who can tie families and communities together and serve as historian and messenger of the African gods. The blues musician is the modern version of this role. Furthermore, because Afro-mysticism has been blended in the Americas with Christianity the blues traveler also represents the apostle or Christ figure – the teacher of truth. Thus, sadness can be turned into song and the suffering can, through music, be expiated (a sort of atonement). Michael, being college educated in the South if he took American or African American literature or art classes would likely have been familiar with this idea/archetype. So “Lightnin’ Hopkins” can be the person who heals the community by bringing it together, he can be the teacher or messenger of the gods (whether Christian or otherwise), and he can help rid us of our suffering. It’s actually a powerful image. If this idea interests you read an article called “Fraternal Blues” by Ashraf Rushdy. I also recommend the novel “Damballah” by John Edgar Wideman – one of America’s greatest modern authors, who happens to be black and incorporates this idea often into his works.

  21. Paul Alferink Says:

    I always assumed the “Crow!” shout was an order of sorts, given that after Stipe yells crow, they start in with the “Ohhhs!” Mostly, I think the song is about filming landscapes and taking picture of landscape, as Stipe is wont to do.

    But screw all that. The best parts of this song are Bill going nuts on the drums and dissodent guitar of Mr. Buck.

  22. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Matthew and Ignis: Excellent, excellent points/insight, i (like many others) thought this song was just a bunch of odd words thrown together!


  23. ScottMalobisky Says:

    wowsville y’all, very informative . Ignis ,too bad that keen mind is not in a woman’s body……
    Right on , Matthew , I understand ..You’re still Aces in my book….

    transformerdog going back to ScottMalobisky now……….”Excitable Boy they all said, ooooooh wah ooh ,ooh ooh , excitable boy…….”

  24. Ignis Sol Says:

    thanks, Bandwagon03

    Funny, thing, I spent a part of my evening snapping photos of my own shadow. I was walking home and the sun was at my back casting this great shadow. I also snapped a scene just after a shooting by Macy’s (Seattle). There were still a couple of gobs of blood on the ground. A bit earlier, I took pics of the cop arrest of the suspects in front of my building. I was even on the local Fox station(we call it Queer 13 because almost everyone is gay) describing the scene.

    bad lands, indeed.

  25. torsty Says:

    The lyric “pan the track” might also refer to the placement of a recorded audio track in a stereo mix, i.e. panning the guitar track left or right (or anywhere in between) in the mix. That might well be the most direct (albeit vague) reference the song makes in connection to a blues guitarist.

    Either way, the line’s a complete non-sequiter, given the first half of the couplet (“shows the water”), but isn’t that so very typically Stipean? 🙂

  26. Ignis Sol Says:

    I agree torsty, and the second verse does not quite follow with the “themes” I pick up from the first verse.
    That is typical, Stipean. No?

    I like your “panning the guitar track” assessment because I also come from an audio recording/engineering background. Sweet.

    Personally, I bring in my own experiences to their songs only slightly guessing at what the band was thinking while writing it. This is especially and mostly true for their earlier works.

  27. Kirsten Says:

    I’ve never understood this song or it’s meaning. Now I’ve got a few options I’m even more confused ’cause they’re all possible. Agree with the “kiss ass drums”. Great tune.

    I always thought it was “Lightnin wand”. Whatever.

  28. Figgy Says:

    Document was the first REM album I ever heard. I don’t really have any one favourite song from it – I just like listening to the whole thing in one go from start to finish. It’s a cohesive block of work. For me each song leads very nicely into the next. I really like the way Lightnin’ Hopkins ends and King of Birds begins. It just sounds good. Similarly, when Exhuming McCarthy ends I look forward to the opening riff of Heron House as if it’s part of the same song.

    I guess I’m saying I’ve never really listened to Lightnin’ Hopkins without having listened to every Document song that comes before or after, always enjoying it as a catchy part of a great album.

    I’ve never given the lyrics much thought because I remember Peter Buck once said that guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins could knock out songs in 15 minutes and that’s what REM tried with this one. I just assumed it was thrown together and didn’t deserve scrutiny.

    But I have to thank many of you who have made great comments on the song. I shall think of all the possibilities when I next listen to it: landscapes of the Southern States, camera terminology, the blues traveller, panning using a sound desk, attitudes towards the Southern States formed by only seeing TV/movie footage of those places, the success of the “Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins” doco at a film festival, lightning being a flash of insight that wins out, etc.

    I like the song more than ever now.

  29. Mr Cup Says:

    I have always seen this song as a black and white film, what with the silhouettes and crows, but never considered the lyrics as descriptive of the shots. Duh! Makes beautiful sense. Now I wonder if the lyrics were written as a shot list for a movie that Stipe sang a la Voice of Harold?

    As Figgy says, this song leads you into King of Birds nicely – with the bird references throughout.

    Document 20 years old….Jeez….time to grow a pony tail and buy me a nice convertible sports car methinks.

  30. maclure Says:

    Hey folks, this is a mindless post to pass the time…

    just woke up after a vivid REM dream. That’s what I get for eating cheese and checking this blog last thing before putting my head down… Anyway, the new single (if my dream is prophetic) will be released in a non-frills cardboard packet, will contain 3 studio b-sides (unlikely, I know!), features a new REM logo in which the M looks too much like a “G”. As for the first single it rocks with overdrive guitars (this Monster), was not played in Dublin and is very short at only 2 minutes long with one verse and one chorus only. In my dream I actually thought to myself “This is good, if a little odd. REM shan’t be gaining new fans with this offering though…”

    Just read some more of the reviews posted on remhq. Q magazine were sort of an unofficial fanzine of REM in the mid-90s. Stipe and co could do no wrong in their eyes back then. It seems Q are back on side after the Olympia shows. I’m getting more and more excited about this new record, it’s like being a kid again…

  31. maclure Says:

    that should be “think Monster” in the brackets…

  32. Mr Cup Says:

    Here’s to REG!

  33. Paul Alferink Says:


    When Coleridge wrote crazy shit like that, he usually at least prefaced it with “after waking from an opium dream . . . “

  34. ScottMalobisky Says:

    all dreams are “REM” dreams , gotta have that Rapid Eye Movement deep sleep phase going on in order to dream, or so they say, right??

  35. ScottMalobisky Says:

    The Jim Carroll Band , ‘Crow’

  36. jim jos Says:

    what a great dream maclure. I like it a lot, and the first single will be a two minute garage type “Fell in Love with a Girl (only better because its REM) type song. Love it.

    I am extremely excited about the new album, more so than I thought. LOL at Robyn Hitchcock for kicking Peter Bucks ass. Someone had to.

  37. ScottMalobisky Says:

    jimjos , what are you talking about–RH kicking PB’s arse ? you mean literally?

  38. Kirsten Says:

    Great to see you back Scotty! Seems transformerdog may have left you his little stash of “pills”…….

  39. Eric taylor Says:

    One of my favorite R.E.M. tracks! It just has this feel to it unlike any other song, but the song is so integral to the overall sound of Document.

    Having said that, if you listen closely you can hear that the “crazy dribble” kick drum sound is an overdub and not played live with the back beat. Bill is still playing a great beat (He is such a solid drummer), but the part is pretty minimal in comparison. My guess is that they added the “dribble” because it really adds a lot of excitement and energy to the song. It is either an overdub drum part with effects on it, or possibly not even a percussion instrument at all, but a keyboard effect filtered through some sort of effect.

    Just my two cents.

  40. Figgy Says:

    Hey jim jos, I share your joy on Hitchcock challenging Peter Buck that REM is no longer a guitar band (mentioned in the Q mag article – see this link:

    It certainly seems to have had the desired effect. According the the Q reporter (when witnessing the Dublin rehearsals), Buck has “got his band back and a skip in his step”! The guitars are very much to the fore in the new material.

    I also read the recent Hot Press interview (you’ll find a link to it on the REMHQ website). Interesting to hear Buck talking about how ATS had the potential to be a really good album but was ruined by over-production. Now there are signs that Buck, and presumably the rest of the band, want to get back to a more raw spontaneous sound.

    My expectations are getting dangerously high for this new album. I mustn’t get too carried away.

  41. Kirsten Says:

    Sounds like Peter may have spent some time searching through the trash on this blog and has address some of the constructive critism put forward by some here.
    ATS wasn’t that bad, and there are plenty of songs that I will always want to go back and listen to.

  42. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Kirsten the only pills I want is my lorazepam prescription refill (the only thing that works for me)..I think I like using my real name –for now–because I have nothing to hide and I’m kinda hoping that maybe somebody out there might recognize it, would be so cool to run into someone from my class or something who is as much of a fan as I 🙂

  43. tiger lily Says:

    I’ve been enjoying this blog immensely. It has encouraged me to go back and listen to music that I haven’t heard in at least 10 years.

    I always thought this song was about a horse race and the eager(or desperate) people who placed their bets on their favorite.

    The dribbling drums represents to me the horses coming out of the start gate and the guitar part is the race itself. Of course “Lightnin’ Won” is the fastest horse on the track.

    The first verse’s prayer are the betters looking for a win and “Hound crow hold onto your hat” is the excitement as the race goes into the final stretch.

    I love that there are so many interpretations of a song that has no meaning. Next time I listen I’m going to try to hear it with the photography and African American literature references in mind!

  44. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, that’s interesting tigerlily. I’ve never looked at it like that. Makes sense…

  45. profligateprofiterole Says:

    Hi Natalie.

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