CLARKSDALE – “While he was living, Van Gogh never sold a painting; but following his death, his art was worth millions,” observes James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Clarksdale’s irrepressible blues musician and Friday night headliner for the 32nd annual Sunflower River Blues Festival.
Inside his studio overflowing with handmade guitars and diddley bows in various stages of completion, the singer/songwriter and folk artist laments the rugged path of his own artistic career.
However he remains busy, busy, busy and creative.
Innovative shapes of his new instruments include an airplane diddley bow proclaiming the logo of Delta Air Lines, a pair of soaring bald eagles, glittering ceiling fans, Crown Royal and Makers Mark whiskey, and John Deere tractors.
All are hard -working instruments he vigorously plays on stage,
The Delta Air Lines instrument is featured inside Delta’s company magazine tucked neatly inside the back of every “friendly skies” passenger seat in their fleet.
Asked what inspires his limitless creativity, Johnson smiles and immediately replies: “Empty pockets.”
He admits to past problems with the “tax man” but says everything now has been all worked out.
Still the Sunflower headliner never spends an idle day.
He and his band played Memphis in May, the Chicago Blues Festival, and are preparing for the Richmond Folk Festival .
“There’s some talk about going to Israel, but the last time I was there bombs were exploding,” he said.
Definitely on his agenda, however, is a trip to South America with gigs in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile.
And the Legendary Blues Cruise leaving California with seven days on the Mexican Rivera is a favorite feather in his cap.
He plays a major artistic role performing daily during this outing and his handmade instruments are displayed in an exhibit with each selling in a $2,500 price range
Their designs also are emblazoned on t-shirts, posters, and other souvenirs.
“John Lee Hooker and other greats once played diddley bows, but I’m the only blues musician today on a one-string instrument,” Johnson claims.
Currently he’s busy putting finishing touches on the Blues Cruise collection and getting it ready for shipment.
The recipient of a prestigious Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, Johnson once accompanied then Gov. Haley Barbour to Japan to open Mississippi’s Pavillion at the World’s Fair.
With his unique instruments, Southern “barnyard commentary,” pseudo feuds with LaLa, and his own musical expertise, he has become a frequent world traveler and ambassador welcomed in the Netherlands and Norway to Switzerland and Africa.,
The core of Chikan’s polished professional band includes LaLa Craig on keyboard, Heather Tackett Falduto on bass, and Mesa Turner, his daughter, on drums.
Although most members of his hometown audience know the words of his songs and often sing along with the band, his popularity continues to be awesome, says Melvita Tillis Presley, Sunflower chair.
“Everyone loves ‘Chikan’,” she nods in agreement. .
Chikan holding his newest guitars ad diddley bows; Delta Airlines, Bald Eagle, John Deere tractor.