It’s getting harder and harder for a dedicated Delta Bluesman like Super Chikan to eke out a living in Clarksdale.
“It’s fell off real bad since we got our new president. All our work is overseas; Belgium, Holland, Amsterdam. Can’t find no work at home, man.”
This coming from a Bluesman who resisted the call to head north to Chicago as so many of his Blues brethren did when the ‘gettin’ was good.’
Chikan, as he likes to be called, believed in Mississippi despite the post-WWII exodus of not only Delta musicians but everyday folk too, looking for economic advancement and a respite from King Cotton.
“Things were so bad in Mississippi at one time that nobody wanted to own it. Nobody wanted to be from Mississippi because everybody down rated, low rated and talked about it so bad. People were ashamed of it. They didn’t want to own up to being from here. Poor folks don’t grow in Mississippi. Don’t nothin’ but cotton grow here. But everybody gotta be from somewhere, so I decided I was gonna keep it real.”
It seems the spigot that spewed a voracious torrent of opportunity to the Delta Blues economy has been slowed to a trickle for Super Chikan. Having a sister city to Clarksdale in Notodden, Norway certainly helped. As a matter of fact, Notodden Norway was the first city outside of the U.S. to have a Blues Marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail. The Marker has Super Chikan’s name on it. Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club helped also. But not enough to sustain an artist who needs to work like James “Super Chikan” Johnson. He hasn’t worked there since February of 2017.
It could be that Chikan has outgrown the shrinking Delta economy. Despite the fact that he is ‘one of the last of the originals, a grandchild of the Delta, no local relief seems to be in sight. Apart from his crowning glory as an electrified-in-your-face, one of a kind Delta Blues King, he is also an inventive designer and manufacturer of his own special line of guitars. Art collectors far and wide gladly pay four figure sums for his one of a kind creations with names like “Cigar-gantar,” “African Washboard,” “Chikantar,”He doesn’t bother with patents. Consequently there are knock off companies that imitate his creations with inferior products. His creations are finely crafted instruments that play really well.
“Naw, no time for patents,” he answers when queried. “I make so many different kinds and everyone wants their’s to be different, so I’m always coming up with something new. You know, I don’t just stick with one thing all the time. I’m kind of adventurous with the thang, you know?
I’m workin’ on one as we speak, a wood body for myself. Here lately, people are not buying. They don’t want to pay for them. Most people that buy them are art collectors. Other musicians just look it as a guitar. They don’t look at it as art. They say, ‘Well, I’m a guitar player and I wouldn’t pay that much for a guitar.’ Art collectors on the other hand, don’t care what they pay for art sometimes.”
He’s also created his own version of the Diddley Bow.
“Back in the day when I was a kid, all the musicians had a Diddley Bow before they even saw a guitar. We were poor folks and when you’re young, if you’re musically inclined you’re gonna beat on a log, a bucket or something. And if you wanna play strings you get yourself a stick with some baling wire and nail it to the side of the house, you had something to play on. With the advent of the guitar, the diddley bow became obsolete, old fashioned, obsolete and didn’t nobody wanna fool with it no more. I’m one of last, one of the only ones still playing the diddley bow. I break the diddley bow out at every show, man! Now back when I was a kid, the diddley bow I play now would’ve been illegal. It would’ve been disrespect to the Delta way, cuz in tose times it couldn’t have over four strings. Now mine is six strings and electric.”
Curious about his guitar amp setup, live and in the studio I ask him and he clues me in.
“Aww man. Usually I get whatever they got on stage. But my regular amp is a Fender. Playin’ so many festivals, they never seem to have what you want. I use to request a Peavy Chorus 212 when I was on the road. But they never have it so I take my foot pedal for whatever amp I use.
In 2004 he was presented the Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts. In 2005 Chikan received an Artist Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission recognizing his visual artist talents. (He also paints). In 2006 he was featured in the Library of Congress’s ‘Homegrown’ series. But all the gigs and accolades have all but gone away.
I ain’t doin’ nothin at home, man. You try to get a little help around home and they look at you like you crazy while you steady goin’ down. They say, ‘Well he must be on drugs or somethin’ because Super Chikan’s doin’ this or ain’t doin’ that. It’s easy to get that name, man. ‘Specially if they don’t wanna help you in the first place. They got to have a good reason not to.”
Many of the club’s and joints that were viable, even at the beginning of the millennium, are no longer truly jukin’. Those that remain only open once or twice a week, serving up a paltry imitative clone of the real Delta Blues.
Make no mistake though about James “Super Chikan” Johnson, the name. Chikan’s Uncle was the late Big Jack Johnson, himself one of the last in a long line of superior Delta Bluesmen and winner of a W. C. Handy Award in 2003. The line goes back from Chikan, through Big Jack, to Big Jack’s dad Ellis Johnson. Mean ‘ol Ellis was a fiddle, guitar and mandolin player who happened to be first cousin to ROBERT JOHNSON.
This writer had no idea. In researching Chikan and Big Jack, I discovered Ellis. I subsequently asked Chikan about his grandpa Ellis’ Blues pedigree.
He responded, “All the Delta Blues players would visit my grandpa from time to time in Rena Lara, Mississippi. He played a lot of fiddle. Back in the 1920’s he played guitar with Robert Johnson.”
“Oh man,” I gushed, picking myself up off the floor.
Chikan continued, ” Ellis, Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards used to go down to Greenwood and play together.” However great Ellis Johnson was, he was also a mean spirited son of the Delta. He also raised young James who never knew his real dad.
Super Chikan tells a couple of stories as to just how mean Ellis Johnson was.
“Delta Blues guys would come and visit my granddad and they would jam on the porch. Over the years, from time to time, from Robert Johnson to Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and others would come. They would play and drink moonshine which Jimmy Reed really loved. I would sneak under the porch to listen and watch through the cracks. Dust would sprinkle on me when they got to goin’.
One night I got brave enough to climb a tree with my diddley bow and play along with them. They couldn’t see me or hear me but I was watchin’ them laugh, play, drink and cuss ’till I fell out the tree. My granddad was gonna kill me. My grandma had to come out and save me.
I saw my grandad beat my grandmother many times. The first dead body I saw was when my grandma blew his head off with a shotgun as he came at her with a hatchet. “
Like the true Delta oral traditionalist that he is, Chikan has many stories to tell. He talks of playing with the late great, Jessie Mae Hemphill who, when irritated, would pull out her gun and defiantly shout, “I’ll spray ’em, I’ll spray ’em!”
Near the end of our phone time together, I ask Chikan to describe a supernatural experience that he had around the music that is imbued in his soul.
“Yeah, I went to Africa to the island of Goree where the have the door of no return. I saw all my kinfolks there. The ones that have passed on. The mayor of Goree was the spittin’ image of my grandpa, Ellis Johnson. It was like a graveyard. All my people who’ve died, I saw again in Africa. This was in Dakar, West Africa.”
These are some of the stories that Super Chikan’s Blues are made of as he readies himself for a seismic shift away from the Delta, due in part to filmmaker Scott Jennison.
Back in 2001, Jennison released a, Echoes ‘cross the tracks, a film that documents the evolution of Clarksdale from its inception as a Black hamlet on the other side of the tracks of the train station, initially known as New Africa. Even during the Great Depression, juke joints sprouted like weeds. Clarksdale became a “cutting session,” both literally and figuratively for the musicians trying to make a way out of the morass of Jim Crow.
Narrated partially by Morgan Freeman, it features Pinetop Perkins, Otha Turner, Sam Carr, Seasick Steve, Big Jack Johnson and Super Chiken.
Jennison became a fierce Super Chikan advocate and of late has convinced Chikan that the commute to Atlanta would be commercially viable for Chikan in terms of performance and recording possibilities. According to Jennison, Chikan has been ripped off repeatedly and deserves the just fruits of earning a living. The checks from his ten recorded albums have become nonexistent.
Even the state of Mississippi in its promotional commercial uses clips of Chikan prominently and has never paid him a dime. In Dennison’s vision that will soon change. Will plenty of video footage in the can and more to come, Chikan and Dennison are preparing a Blues blitz that should light up Atlanta as well as the world at large.
With plenty of places to play in Atlanta and radio interviews lined up, the chances of Chikan regaining the momentum to earn a decent living look good.
One thing for sure. Regardless of where the Super Chikan roosts, he will always be a grandchild of the Delta.
Super Chikan videos – Click on the image to see video.
James “Super Chikan” Johnson & Heather Tackett Falduto – “Chikan Blues” live at the Crossroads stage at the 2016 Chicago Blues Fest.
Super Chikan performs “Sittin’ By The River” at the 13th Annual NON-COMMvention in Philadelphia, May 2013.