ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 24, 2003
By Steve Newton
When the Straight contacts Big Jack Johnson—the veteran bluesman, not the youthful chart-topping surfer dude—at his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he’s just gotten back from Milan, Italy. To hear him tell it, the blues is definitely alive and well in Europe, and has been for a while. “I been goin’ over there since 1963,” Johnson spouts. “Oh Lord, we been to all those places—Rome, Italy, Paris, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Amsterdam. And we’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea.”
Next stop for the well-travelled guitarist-vocalist is Deer Lake Park, where he’ll perform with the likes of Shemekia Copeland and Remy Shand at the fourth-annual Burnaby Blues Festival on Saturday (July 26). He’ll be bringing the down-home sound heard on his latest CD, The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, which won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for best blues album last year. Johnson just wishes there were more musicians from his home state of Mississippi who’d help spread the timeless music of the Delta.
“There’s a lotta young ones comin’ up, but you can’t hardly tell ’em nuttin’,” gripes the 62-year-old. “They think they know it all. With all this rap and stuff come out here now, they ain’t hardly got their mind on some kinda blues anymore, ’cause they don’t hear the blues like I used to hear ’em. Turn the radio on is this rap; turn the TV on is rap. They don’t see no blues, so they’re not concentratin’ on it.”
Johnson’s no hip-hop fan, but neither has he been listening to much blues in his spare time. Strangely enough, when it comes to personal listening, he cues up the C & W. “If I’m ridin’ along, goin’ fishin’ or something, I don’t want no blues to get in my blood. If I play the blues I’m gonna get that feelin’ that somewhere I’m gonna have to get my guitar out, and pluck it! So I figured if I play somethin’ like [western-swing bandleader] Bob Wills, that’s good ridin’ music; I hear the music but I don’t get that blues feelin’, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Johnson notes that he gets the blues every night when he watches TV reports of the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq, but he doesn’t point to anything else in particular as far as musical inspiration goes. “Aw, ain’t nuttin’ goin’ on that inspires me,” he drawls. “I’m out here and I’m just doin’ it. But you gotta treat everybody right, gotta say the right thing, gotta do the right thing. That’s all I do.”
Still, when it was time to record The Memphis Barbecue Sessions with Fabulous T-Birds harpist Kim Wilson, grub from Payne’s Barbecue on Beale Street helped bring a smoky tang to the CD’s batch of Johnson originals and blues gems by Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and Elmore James. “Some barbecue is too runny,” Johnson explains. “Most people just cook the meat and put the sauce on it. But this here, the sauce had cooked into the meat. It was real good, man!”