“My friends call me Chikan,” said the multitalented bluesman Super Chikan, a true character in every sense of the word. “They don’t know my other name.”
Super Chikan has been called some variation of “chicken” for so much of his life that it’s not hard to believe that, at age 67, he doesn’t really have any other name.
And while he’s known as both a blues master and as a guitar maker, it’s through one of his handmade guitars that he’s making a special contribution to the Richmond Folk Festival – he’s donating a custom guitar to the festival for an auction, with proceeds benefiting the beloved free event, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
“They asked me if I’d make a guitar for them to auction off. I told them, ‘That’s a lot of work, man!’ But for the Richmond Folk Festival, I did it,” he said.
The handmade guitar Super Chikan is donating for the auction looks like a bald eagle – a design he’d never tried before.
“I’d done chickens and things, but I wanted to try an eagle,” he said. “I got a piece of wood and cut it to shape and went from there.”
The “chiktar” – that’s a guitar made by Super Chikan – being auctioned was cut from pretreated oak, painted, and then layered with glass coating to protect the design. The six-string features knobs for volume and tone control, two single-coil pick-ups, and lock-down keys so it will stay tuned longer. It took several weeks to make and Super Chikan said he’s pleased with the result.
“A bald eagle flies high,” he said. “And I got to try something new. I’ve done a lot of different things already so I’m always looking for something new.”
Bid on a chance to win Super Chikan’s one-of-a-kind, Bald Eagle chiktar! Auction runs from October 1-15.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, Super Chikan started making guitars from a young age.
“We invented recycling,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to throw anything away so I was always just storing stuff until I could find something to do with it. I got a broken ceiling fan and thought I could do something with it so I took it apart and made a guitar out of it.”
He made guitars out of all kinds of things – gas cans, found wood, and even a toilet seat.
“You could raise the lid and play it and then when you closed the lid, it was just a toilet seat with a guitar neck sticking out,” he said.
He paints his guitars in bright, vivid colors, strings them with regular store-bought guitar strings, and sells them.
“I don’t sell them cheap cause they’re one of a kind,” he said, noting that $2,500 is the starting price for most of his pieces, but some have gone for over $6,000 at auction.
Chicken Boy grows into Super Chikan
Super Chikan was playing the blues well before he was making guitars, but back then, he was called “Chicken Boy.”
“When I was real little, everyone else was working and my job was to take care of the chickens so they started calling me Chicken Boy. Then I grew up into a Super Chikan,” he said.
Super Chikan has been playing music for as long as he can remember. He grew up in a musical family, and as a small child, he played a homemade diddley-bow – a board with a single piece of wire stretched between two nails and played with a bottleneck, pocketknife, or even a nail. It was a common household instrument in the Deep South, especially in African American communities, and it was often the first instrument children learned to play.
As he got older, Chikan started playing for audiences, most notably with his uncle, Big Jack Johnson.
“I had to get over being shy though,” he said. “I was real shy and it took a long time to get stage fright out of the way. But I got up there and I let out my chicken crow and I got everybody’s attention.”
Super Chikan started writing his own songs, usually on long hauls while working as a truck driver, and he estimates he’s written about 50,000 of them by now.
“I don’t have a favorite,” he said. “My songs are like my children – I love them all.”
He’s recorded 10 albums, but of course, a lot of the songs never made it on to the albums. And a lot more were never recorded at all.
“Most of the time I get on stage and just make it up,” he said. If no one is recording live and he doesn’t remember the song later, it’s just lost to the moment.
“Being on stage is like being an airplane pilot,” he said. “The airplane pilot is responsible for the whole plane – all the passengers. When I get up on stage, I’m responsible for the whole audience – I’ve got to decide where to take them and I’ve got to get them there. That’s why, when I crow to get their attention, I say, ‘Now I’m in charge.’ Whether I’m really in charge or not, I tell them I’m in charge. Now I’ve got to get them there.”
Super Chikan said he can play just about any instrument you hand him, but the guitar and his own banjo-like take on the diddley-bow are his preference. Any of his songs can be played with any of his guitars, which is a good thing, he said, because he doesn’t usually plan out ahead of time what he’s going to play on stage.
“Except for the ones on the diddley-bow,” he added. “The ones I recorded on the diddley-bow, I like to play them on the diddley-bow so they sound like they did on the album.”
When he performs at the Richmond Folk Festival, Super Chikan said he’ll probably bring three guitars of his own – not counting the one to be auctioned off.
“I usually travel with three or four,” he said. “And it’s the ones I make myself.”
“A hunk of manure”
Known equally as a craftsman of musical instruments and as a musician, Super Chikan says he’s been called a “double artist” and as “one of the last of the original Delta boys.” But that’s not the first term that comes into his mind when asked whether he considers himself a craftsman who plays music or a musician who makes guitars.
“I’m from the country and we didn’t have much education,” he said. “Everything over four letters was either a sickness or a curse word. So one day this man called me a ‘hunk of manure’ and I said, ‘Did you just call me a hunk of manure?’ He said, ‘No, I called you a … ’ and then I thought he said it again – it sounded like he said ‘a hunk of manure.’ It was a long time before I knew the word ‘entrepreneur,’ but I think that’s what he said. But now when people ask what I am, I always think first that I’m a hunk of manure.”
Self-taught and doing his own thing
Super Chikan said he never learned to read music and he was never taught how to build guitars – he just learned how to play and how to make instruments on his own.
“I just figured it out. I was too dumb to learn from anyone else,” he said. “But it helps that I can’t read music; if you read music, you can get trapped in a box. I just have an ear and a feel for it.”
After more than 50 years of playing for audiences and building his own instruments, Super Chikan said he’s proud to have lived to be 67 and to have created his own legacy by doing his own thing.
“I’m Super Chikan; I ain’t nobody else,” he said. “And I’ll be talked about after I’m gone.”
Bid on Super Chikan's one-of-a-kind, Bald Eagle chiktar NOW! The auction will close on October 15 at noon ET. All proceeds benefit the Richmond Folk Festival.