‘I AM one the last of the originals... my songs are about what I know, what I have experienced and about the Delta style of life, and about the hardships and the hard times,’ says blues guitarist James Johnson..
(photo credit: BILL STEBER)
Chicken may have negative connotations for some, but not for James Johnson. Better known as Super Chikan, Johnson is a 63-yearold blues guitarist and singer from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and if the blues is your thing there are few better places from which to hail. Johnson will be here next week, to play two gigs – one all the way up north, at the cozy Hahakura pub venue in Metullah on Tuesday (9 p.m.), with the main slot at Barby in Tel Aviv on the morrow (8:30 p.m.). The American will be supported by bass player Yehu Yaron and drummer Aviv Barak, with singer-songwriter Amir Lev guesting at Barby.
And while we’re on the subject of names, Super Chikan’s family name puts one in mind of probably the most iconic figure in the annals of the blues, the legendary Robert Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad in order to secure his musical gifts. One of his best known numbers is, fittingly, called “Crossroad.” The common appellation is no coincidence. “Robert Johnson was my grandfather’s cousin,” explains Chikan. Clearly the Clarksdale man has a genetic start on most blues artists.
The lyrics of blues numbers often depict the loneliness of travelers and their longing to be home. Chikan knows all about that as for many years he earned his keep as a truck driver. That not only enabled him to feed himself and his family it also allowed him plenty of time to ponder the meaning of life and put some songs together.
“You don’t have nothing to do and you don’t have much time to sleep so you sit down and write a song, and if that doesn’t sound right you sit down and write another song,” says Chikan with a chuckle. “And you have those long journeys and you see all different places, things, and you are a long way from home, and it all makes you want to write a song about it.”
Chikan has been playing music from a very early age. His uncle Big Jack Johnson was a blues musician too, although Chikan says he found his own way into the art form. “I just picked up my own style. It was a traditional thing that we had around the house and I just picked it up. Now I do it for a living.”
Earlier bluesmen from the Delta area, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, often headed north to Chicago to get away from segregation in the Deep South. But Chikan has spent his whole life in Clarksdale. He was never tempted by the bright lights of the “blues capital of the north,” where the blues went electric and branched out into more commercial areas.
“I am one the last of the originals,” he says. “My songs are about what I know, what I have experienced and about the Delta style of life, and about the hardships and the hard times. I also play electric guitar but I play the Delta style.”
Chikan’s bio sounds the stuff of blues legend. The genre, traditionally, emerged in the late 19th century from spirituals, shouts and chants, and songs sung by black slaves working in the fields. While Chikan belongs to a later generation, he says his early life was heavily impacted by socioeconomic deprivation and racism.
“We were sharecroppers, which was a modernized form of slavery. We lived on a farm and we’d work for nothing all year long and there’d be payday and, at the end of the year when we settled up, we would always be in debt. So we’d have to stay there on the farm and keep working,” recalls Chikan. “That’s just like slavery, so I know all about that.”
It was Chikan’s fondness for farmyard fowl which resulted in his sobriquet.
“I spent a lot of time with chickens when I was kid and they called me Chicken Boy,” he explains. “Later when I grew up, I grew up into a Super Chikan,” he laughs. “I loved chickens. They were my pets.”
They also inform his art.
“I have a chicken style of playing guitar, and I can sound like a chicken when I sing. I’ve got chicken rhythm. You know chickens don’t have no rhythm, so that’s the kind of rhythm I’ve got,” he adds with a smile.
Chikan has also got his own songs, in great numbers, and his own style. It took a while to get his debut album out, the 1997 release Blues Come Home to Roost, but there have been six more where that came from, the most recent being Okiesippi Blues which came out in 2011. He has also picked up some nice official kudos along the way, including the 2004 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and the 2010 Blues Music Award for Traditional Blues Album of the Year.
There are no blues standards in Chikan’s seven albums to date, although he salutes the masters of the genre.
“I always wanted to be my own man, and I came from that style of life. But I am inspired by [blues icons] BB King, Albert King and Jimmy Reed. I won’t sing their songs – I sing my own – but I talk about them in my songs because they are my inspirations. I don’t do their stuff. We already had a Jimmy Reed and a BB King, but we didn’t have no Super Chikan, so I reckoned I should do my own thing.”
The man is clearly the real McCoy, and Super Chikan’s forthcoming gigs offer a rare opportunity to grab some Delta action firsthand.For tickets and more information: 077-5002985 (Metullah), and (03) 518-8123 and www.barby.co.il