BARNYARD FUN WITH SUPER CHIKAN
October / November 2000
By Natasha Nargis
One of Mississippi's most eccentric bluesmen, James "Super Chikan" Johnson
was hatched in the winter of 1951. His first "guitar" consisted of a one-string baling wire he stretched himself. At age 19 he began hitting the jukes, playing bass with his uncle, Big Jack Johnson, a Mississippi favorite and a man to whom the Chikan bears a startling physical resemblance. Somewhere along the way, Chikan also discovered he could perfectly imitate the screeches of barnyard fowl, and saw fit to incorporate such sounds both live and on his two discs of music: Blues Come Home To Roost (Rooster Blues, 1999) and What You See (Fat Possum, 2000).
How did you get the name Super Chikan?
I was about nine years old. I used to talk with the chickens. I was too young
to go to the field. I was home with the chickens, just me and the chickens. I
would sit on the front porch and the chickens would come by and say, "**&^^^^^%%%$#####!!!" One rooster used to get up by my window every morning about six o'clock and wake me up. He'd say, "Mr. Joooohnsoooooon!!!!!!"
When you were just a little chikan he called you Mr. Johnson?
Yeah. "Mr Joooohnsooooooon!!! Get up, feed me! Get up, feed me!!!!!"
Tell me about "Super Chikan Strut" on Blues Come Home To Roost.
We almost filled up the album, but they needed one more song about me. I just
came up out of the blue with that song. I didn't write it out. I just started
singing, "Well, they call me Super Chikan!" That one isn't written down
What were you doing before you started playing professionally?
I'd done land leveling and surveying. Then I started driving trucks. That's when I wrote the most songs. Between the miles, ideas, thoughts, and memories came across. The job wasn't what I really wanted to do anyway, so I started to write songs. I really didn't intend to sing any of them. I thought, "I'll just write songs for other people. I'm a pretty good poet." So I went home and had me a homemade studio. I put a lot of music to all those songs, and took them to Rooster Blues. Jim O'Neal heard them, and he liked them. He asked when I wanted to get started recording. I said, "Oh, I don't want to record them myself. I just write them for other people. I can't sing, and plus I don't have the money to go into the studio anyway." He said nobody sings a song like the one who wrote it. "You wrote them, these are your songs. You had your feelings when you wrote them, and nobody can sing them the way you would." I told him again that I couldn't sing. He told me that I could. I said I didn't have money for the studio. He said, "With music like this you don't need money for the studio." So we recorded it.
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How did you move from Rooster to Fat Possum?
Rooster moved out of Clarksdale. I wasn't with anybody at the time. I was playing over in Oxford [Mississippi] one night, and Fat Possum happened to be there and heard me. They were blown away. They wanted to record me, and asked if I would sign up. I said that as far as I knew I was still signed up with Rooster. So we called Rooster and got an okay for me to sign with Fat Possum.
Some of your songs are political, like "Mr. Rich Man."
Oh yeah, and "Captain Love Juice." That one's got a hidden story in it.
Captain Love Juice was a runaway slave. He said, "I tried to run away from the show, but Mr. Money said you can't go." He tried to run away from the farm, and he got caught, and they brought him back. He tried again and got away, and he went to New York. He was the Mandingo breeding slave, a big strong guy. He was always in a little cubicle with a bunch of women. He thought that was the way of life. So when he got free he went up north to New York, and he tried to have that many women again.
It didn't work. Late one night he had 15 enemies scratching like a cat. All the women jumped on him and beat him up. They tied him to the foot of the bed and left him for dead. He wasn't much good when they got done with him. He didn't know what was happening. He tried to go back to the farm, but Mr. Money had found somebody else. Captain Love Juice didn't have enough to fill a mustard jar [laughs]. Now that you know the story you can listen to that song differently.