Super Chikan & the Fighting Cocks

Delta blues
Clarksdale, Mississippi

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Mississippi Delta bluesman James “Super Chikan” Johnson plays the guitars he makes himself, using whatever materials are at hand, from gas cans to ceiling fans. He paints each “chikantar” with images from the Delta. The resulting riot of style and color is, like his music, infused with Chikan’s special joie de vivre. “Making one of my guitars is like writing one of my songs. I let the words and feelings take me from the beginning to the end,” he explains. His lyrics, like his art, are noted for both their sly humor and deep insight into life in the Delta.

Born in 1951, Johnson spent his childhood in the Mississippi Delta, moving from town to town, working on his family’s farms. As a young boy, he loved conversing with the family poultry, so his friends gave him the nickname “Chikan Boy.” Like many Mississippi blues musicians, Johnson’s first instrument was a “diddley bow,” a traditional one-stringed instrument made of a board with a piece of baling wire stretched end to end. He switched to guitar in his early teens, and soaked up the blues from great bluesmen like his uncle Big Jack Johnson, neighbor Sam Carr, and fellow Delta resident Frank Frost. Together, this trio formed the Jelly Roll Kings, a blues supergroup that rose to regional fame for two decades in the late 20th century. Super Chikan cut his teeth playing bass with them for a brief time.

For several years, Johnson drove a truck for a living, making up songs to pass the time on the road. Rumor has it the “Super” in his nickname comes from his speed behind the wheel. Encouraged by those who heard his songs, he embarked on a professional music career in the 1990s, beginning a series of exuberant recordings, including Chikadelic, which took home a Blues Music Award for best Traditional Blues Album in 2010. His latest is the tasty and health-conscious Organic Chikan—Free Range Rooster.

The success of these recordings brought Johnson opportunities to tour worldwide and well-deserved recognition on his home turf. He is the recipient of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for his musical contributions, and his unique and skillful instrument building earned him an Artist Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission. At home in Clarksdale, Johnson performs regularly at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club. Freeman calls Super Chikan his “all-time favorite,” noting that, “He puts on a party, and that’s what you want in a juke joint.” With his jaunty all-female band, the Fighting Cocks, featuring Laura “LaLa” Craig on piano, Heather Falduto on bass, and his daughter Jamiesa “Pinky” Turner on drums, Super Chikan brings that juke joint feel back to the Richmond Folk Festival, where he’s sure to put on a party, Chikan-style, to celebrate the festival’s 15th anniversary.