Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Life and Death of Johnny Woods

The hard life of blues harmonica player Johnny Woods, 72, came to an end on February 1, 1990. He died of a heart attack in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Johnny Woods was born on November 1, 1917, in Looxahoma, Mississippi. His father was able to make a living by trading dogs, horses, and mule when he was not working in the cotton fields. 

In the liner notes to The Blues of Johnny Woods, on the Dutch label Swing-master, Woods recalled how he didn't even know there was such a thing as school until he was almost 13 years old. Woods was able to get more out of his farming job than the $20 he earned a month; he learned a lot about music from listening to work chants and hollers. Later, in his spare time, he would work out arrangements combining the shouts he heard with harmonica riffs. 

At 16 he married, and he and his wife had two children. His wife, in the middle of her third pregnancy, died from a stroke. 

As time went on, Woods be came an accomplished musician and a local favorite. In the '60s he recorded with Mississippi Fred McDowell, and in the '80s he traveled and recorded with R.L. Burnside, as well as many others. (Burnside was, perhaps, prouder of Woods' Swingmaster release than he was of his own album for that label.) 

In the liner notes on The Blues of Johnny Woods, he went on to say that one of the reasons his life had been so hard was due to the fact that he was never taught to read, write or count and had been unmercifully taken advantage of. In his late sixties, burdened with glaucoma and eye cataracts, Woods was trying to learn to spell his name and to read.

Shortly before his death, he and his second wife of 29 years, Verlina, had moved into government housing and were enjoying indoor plumbing for the first time in their lives. At the time of his death Woods was taking care of Verlina, who is totally blind and has not left her bed for more than ten years. He was to appear at the Eureka Blues Festival in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, this year, as well as at other local blues festivals. He also appeared regularly at the Rust College Blues and Gospel Festival. A local sculptor agreed to make a headstone for Woods.

By Matthew Johnson

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