Friday, February 28, 2020

The Robert Johnson I Knew - Johnny Shines (1970)

Johnny Shines, "The Robert Johnson I Knew" The American Folk Music Occasional 2 (1970): 30-32.

In this remarkable and interesting reminiscence of the legendary Robert Johnson, a singer and guitarist who knew him well in the mid-1930s, traveled with him on and off for two years, and absorbed a great deal from him named Johnny Shines (born April 26, 1915, in Frazier, Tennessee, then a suburb of Memphis but now absorbed into the city) details his experiences traveling with Robert Johnson. Despite growing up in a musical family, Shines learned to play the guitar over the course of 1932, and he learned to play by listening to the recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Chas. Patton, Lonnie Johnson, and Scrapper Blackwell. Over the next several years, he worked regularly in and around Memphis with a number of bluesmen. He met Johnson in 1935, and he traveled and performed with him until 1937.

Shines continued to perform in the Tennessee/Arkansas area until 1941 when he moved to Chicago, where he still lives. He soon established himself on the city's busy scene and made his first recordings--with pianist Roosevelt Sykes among his accompanists--in the mid-1940s for Columbia Records, which never issued the four sides cut at the session. In 1951 he recorded, as "Shoe Shine Johnny," two sides for Chess; the record coupling them, Chess 1443, Joliet Blues and So Glad I Found You, is extraordinarily rare, far rarer in fact than the two discs he made two years later for the small Chicago independent label, J.O.B. Records, formed in 1949 by blues singer St. Louis Jimmy Oden. For this label he did his celebrated version of Ramblin', a number he had learned from Johnson (it has been reissued on Country Blues Classics,Vol. 2, Blues Classics 6), and three other sides, Evenin' Sun, Brutal Hearted Woman, and Cool Driver, as well as serving as accompanist for several other artists, such as Snooky Pryor, Homesick James Williamson, and Arbee Stidham.

Due to decreased interest in the older country-based music he performed so well, Johnny gave up an active career in the late 1950s. In 1965 he recorded six numbers for Vanguard's Chicago/The Blues/Today (Vanguard 9218) series, and in May of the following year recorded 15 performances for Testament Records (Testament 2212). He continued playing at folk music festivals throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and he passed away on April 20. 1992. He is buried in Cedar Oak Memorial Park in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

The article which follows was written as two letters to Pete Welding, who took the liberty of rearranging their contents into more chronological order. 

The Robert Johnson I Knew - Johnny Shines

I met Robert in 1935 in Helena, Arkansas, through a friend of his and mine who had played piano with me in Hughes, Ark. I never did know this fellow's right name, but everbody called him "M&O" He often talked to me about Robert and how good he was, and he wanted the three of us to get together and jam some. So we went to Helena, Ark., to meet Robert. M&O had heard that Robert was in Helena.

It was a worthwhile trip--I met a friend, someone who liked to travel and play music as well as I did. When Robert and I first met, I was twenty-years-old, and I would say that he was about twenty-two or twenty-three.

Now, we didn't decide to team up. We just went places together and played together. The fact of it was that I was the bad penny. I stayed on Robert's heels, and at that time I would follow anyone who had a run, a riff, or a chord that I wanted until I got it, if they were anyways friendly at all.

Through M&O, we struck up a good friendship, but while we were there Robert left town. He went over into Mississippi and, if it hadn't been for M&O's knowing how Robert was, I would still be waiting for him to come back!

Then I met him again in Memphis. That was my home and I w&nted to be anywhere but there. So Robert was telling me about how he had to go to Dallas to make some records, and I told him "let's go," but he had a ticket and I didn't. We went as far as Texarkana, Ark., and I told him to go on, I would catch up to him soon, and I did. I caught him in a place called Red Water, Texas. Robert had made his records (Note: this would have been in 1937, as Johnson recorded in Dallas on June 19 and 20 of that year), and we had a lot of fun. He would play them for me and I would learn them.

We worked Texas until the cold weather began to set in, then we headed for the southern part of Texas. That's when I found out that Texas was a cotton country; I had thought Texas was only a cow country. Robert and I came back into Arkansas as far as Little Rock, I can't recall just what happened, but my mother was in Arkansas not too far from Hughes and I ended up there. Robert went on, but I stayed on in Hughes. One night I came in and was putting my guitar away when a girl came up to me and told me that a fellow was in my bed who said he knew me real well and could play like she had never heard before. I asked what did he play? When she said guitar, that did it! I knew it was Robert.

We worked around there together, and most of the time individually. What I mean by that is that there were very few songs that Robert wanted to play with any one, so we mostly played in turns. Hughes was a small town, but if anything was going on anywhere it was there. We made the paydays at Stuttgart, Cotton Plant, Snow Lake, and many other places, together and sometimes separately. If we both were in Hughes at the same time we shared the room, or whoever was there on Monday paid the rent.

Well, summer came and we had to go somewhere. That was in '36. We crossed each other regular after that. Then in the spring of '37 we hit Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Windsor, Ontario, then Michigan again, and New York. 

We went back to Illinois, as far as Chicago, then we split again.

Since Robert was the peculiar person that he was, you would have to say that his love life was very slack or open. You see, no woman really had an iron hand on Robert at any time. When his time came to go, he just went. I never could see how a man could be quite so neutral. I have seen him treated so royally that you would think he would never depart from this kindhearted woman that would do anything in this world for him. But how wrong can you be?

There were two guys over in Jersey that had heard about Robert and me being in NewYork, and by some magic they found us and wanted us to go over in Jersey to play for them. That was right up Robert's alley. At the time Robert and were going with two girls in New York.

So we --Robert and I-- left New York and went to New Jersey with these guys to play for them, and for two weeks we didn't think to write but by the same magic the girls found Robert and me. Being the silly ones that they were, they wanted us to go back with them. Robert would have no part of this: he was ready to go south, north or west but not back to New York -- and the way we were living you would think any person in his right mind would want to get away from that place. Don't get me wrong. We were making good money; the people were going for what we were putting down, and we were really unloading. But these girls, they were loaded and offering us everything we wanted, but Bob treated them like they were just two old friends we once had known. Now, look, please don't let the way this is being said disillusion you at all. Robert was far from being a sissy, and sometimes was too forward. Even men's wives were fair game for him. 

Let us change the scene to Arkansas.

We were having quite a time in this little town where people gathered every night to gamble, drink, and dance, or whatever employed their minds to do for their pleasure. We were playing regularly in this get-together joint every night and this specific night Robert saw this girl and wanted to meet her. He found another girl who knew her, and got this girl to introduce them.

Robert didn't lose any time, even though she told him she was married. Robert would not let her out of his sight the rest of the night. And when we left there a couple of days later she was with us, and she stayed for quite a while. Her name was Louise, and she was everything that Robert wanted she could sing, dance, drink and fight like hell. Oh, yes, she could play a little guitar too. She and Robert used to get on until she hit him on the head with a hot stove eye. I don't think that part of Robert's plan at all, because they never got along well after that.

I only know two women who might have been near as close, and they were Shakey Horton's sister and Robert Lockwood Jr.'s mother. I have heard Bob talk more about Shakey's sister than anyone else. Robert's mother must have meant quite a bit to him too, because he called her his wife. I am sure that you've noticed I call these ladies "girls," but that is just a figure of speech, because there was only one girl in the bunch, and that was Horton's sister. She was in her early teens, but the rest were thirty and older. Robert spent a lot of time getting the attention of girls without knowing it himself, and he spent the rest of the time trying to get away from them.

Robert's route was: Memphis, Tennessee, Mississippi, Helena, Arkansas, Missouri, and sometimes Texas. He was a guy that could find a way to make a song sound good with a slide, regardless of its contents or nature. His guitar seemed to talk--repeat and say words with him like no one else in the world could. I said he had a talking guitar, and many a person agreed with me.

This sound affected most women in a way that I could never understand. One time in St. Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, Come on in My Kitchen. He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying--both women and men.

Things like this often happened, and I think Robert would cry just as hard as anyone. It was things like this, it seems to me, that made Robert want to be by himself, and he would soon be by himself. The thing that was different, I think, was that Robert would do his crying on the inside. Yes, his crying was on the inside.

As I have already said, Robert was far from being a sissy, and he proved it without trying. He could do the darnedest things. Women, to Robert, were like motel or hotel rooms: even if he used them repeatedly he left them where he found them. Robert was like a sailor -- with one exception: a sailor has a girl in every port but Robert had a woman in every town. Heaven help him, he was not discriminating -- probably a bit like Christ. He loved them all -- the old, young, fat, thin, and the short. They were all alike to Robert.

We were in West Memphis, Ark., staying at the Hunt Hotel, and playing for a fellow called "City." There was a girl not more than a midget in height and size who also lived in this Hunt Hotel that we all took for granted because she was always running errands for the three of us as well as everyone else in the neighborhood. When she would make a run for us, the change that was left, we would give it to her because we thought she was just a very nice girl.

One day we missed Robert and thought he was on 8th Street with a girl that he gave quite a bit of attention to. We were satisfied with this explanation until the girl we thought he was with came over with food for Robert, and the rest of us too, but when she didn't find Robert we had to make a quick guess as to where he was regardless of what we really thought. So we said he was in Memphis, but she wanted no part of this and was getting quite angry. So somebody had to find him. Well, I knew this little girl always was up and around early and she might just know where Robert was -- and she did, One guess, and I bet you are right! He was there in her bed. She only had one room and since it would have looked kind of foolish to ask her to go out of her own room so I could talk to Robert, I told her what had happened, and she was very broad-minded about the whole thing. She, in turn, told Robert as though he weren't listening and showed him a way to get out of the hotel without being seen, and it worked. After that, Robert used this exit quite often, but he was not always coming from the little girl's room!

One time we were in Wickliffe, Kentucky, and met some girls that I liked very much. They were a dance team that had never been no place and wanted to be seen and heard. I should have said a song-and-dance team of four people. They could really go to town, and I wanted to take them with us when we left and had it all arranged, but Bob, he would slip from one girl to the other until he had them all fighting among themselves. Now he was ready to give them the slip, and we did. 

Did Robert really love? Yes, like a hobo loves a train -- off one and on the other.

Robert had all kinds of moods--singing, playing, drinking, fighting, rambling, sometimes talking (which was the shortest mood of all, except playing with other men in a playful manner). It seems to me that where there were no women around, that's where Robert would find the woman he liked best; and had to have her or go to hell trying to get her. And he got her.

Robert left me in Chicago. He went to St. Louis, to the state line--that is where Arkansas and Missouri join--and from there to Blythesville, Ark., then to Memphis, Tenn., and then back to Hughes, Ark. I caught up with him in Helena, Arkansas.

If you want to guess, you can score yourself a hundred: yes, he was back with Robert Lockwood's mother again. He spent lots of time going between her house and another house that I won't name at this time. Yes, Robert was quite a ladies' man, but he was always running from one, to learn a new face, or to get where another woman was that he already knew. Then Robert went over into Mississippi. I didn't like the thought of Mississippi, so I didn't go with him, and I never saw Robert again.

This was the Robert Johnson that I knew and the good things that I knew about him.

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