When it comes to the blues, there are musicians referred to as trailblazers and legends. Anybody who knows something about the blues has heard the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil to become a better guitar player. Then there’s Lead Belly, who had a talent for playing a 12-string guitar, piano, harp and accordion—and a taste for moonshine, women and trouble. And Muddy Waters migrated from the fields of Mississippi to the streets of Chicago and is one of the first to electrify the blues when he plugged into an amp.
James Johnson is another legend in the making. He was born in the delta region, living and working with his family as sharecroppers. As a young boy he developed an appreciation for the chickens, often talking to them as he did his chores. Thus he got the nickname “Chicken Boy” (shortened to just “Chicken”). Music was a huge influence in his early years. His grandfather, Ellis Johnson, played the fiddle and his uncle was Big Jack Johnson, another Delta blues guitarist. He got his first instrument, a diddley bow (a piece of wood with a piece of baling wire stretched from one end to the other) and spent the next several years coming up with ways to make that diddley bow sound better. He finally got his first real guitar at age 13 from the Salvation Army. It had only 2 strings. By his 20s he was gigging regularly, playing guitar as well as bass at local clubs.
Eventually Johnson worked as a truck driver. It was on long stretches of road behind the wheel that he began writing his own songs. Friends convinced him to get into the studio and record (including Bobby Rush). He also realized his unique style wasn’t exactly a fit with other bands. Unwilling to change his musical style to adapt to others, he struck out on his own. It wasn’t until 1997 that he released his critically acclaimed debut album, “Blues Come Home to Roost,” which garnered three Handy Awards and a nomination in 1998 as Best New Artist Blues Music Award (BMA). He has since recorded six more albums, including the award-winning “Chikadelic” in 2009, which won the Traditional Blues Album of the Year at the BMAs, and has been nominated for BMAs several more times, as well as earning five Living Blues Critics Awards.
Blues Trailblazer: More Validation
Johnson’s style of playing and dedication to the music and culture of the delta Mississippi region has earned the respect of many over the years. In May 2006 he was a featured performer for the Library of Congress’ “Homegrown” series, which celebrates the best of American folk music and dance every year, and he also performed at the Kennedy Center as part of their Millennium Stage series.
Guitar Builder and Artist
According to Johnson, he grew up dirt poor, and they would use and then re-use things in different ways. “We was recycling before we knew what recycling was,” he states in a recent Living Blues* piece. In addition to his music, over the years he’s also become known as a respected visual artist. He not only builds his own guitars—out of just about anything (gas cans, toolboxes, ceiling fan motors, broomsticks…even a shotgun)—he then vibrantly paints and embellishes them with beads, marbles, dice and whatnot. His custom guitars, dubbed “Chikantars,” are actually prized pieces by art collectors. He also does acrylic and oil paintings on canvas. In 2004 he received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and in 2005 he was given an Artist Fellowship Grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission, which supports his continued artistic works.
James “Super Chickan” Johnson performs solo as well as with his band, The Fighting Cocks, at clubs and festivals here in the states and all over the world. But he remains loyal to his home region and the state of Mississippi, playing festivals on a regular basis. As a regular at Morgan Freeman’s club Ground Zero (in Clarksdale), Freeman has been quoted as saying, “…an all-time favorite is one we get often: Super Chikan. He puts on a party and that’s what you want in a juke joint.”
Super Chikan’s website isn’t currently listing any shows, but I did find him on the lineup on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise this coming October. He’s a remarkable individual and I hope to make the trip back down to Clarksdale and catch a performance at a club or festival sometime soon. He’s not only entertaining, but he’s one of the respected Delta musicians keeping the blues alive and well—but with his own style.
*James Johnson offers a narrative of his life (including how his actual “Super Chikan” nickname came to be), which can be found in the Feb/March 2016 issue of Living Blues, #241. It’s a really good piece.
Also worth checking out: “Super Chikan: Last of the Delta Blues Legends,” by Bret Love on his blog Green Global Travel. This casual interview provides a window into his younger years and how he got into building instruments.[Photo at top: PRX / Beale Street Caravan]
Library of Congress “Homegrown” webcast
Mississippi Roads, Mississippi Public Broadcasting piece
Super Chikan performing “Hookin’ Up” in 2007 in Cognac Blues Passions Festival