It was in the fall of 1972 when I drove to the Jackson family compound accompanied by Kip Lornell… autumn in Jonesville, SC and the med show season over until the following Spring. There were a number of outbuildings on the property – Sam slept in one, his brother, Bill, in another, and a third was the kitchen and wash-house. Good, country allocation of space! Sam’s cabin had been burned down accidentally earlier in the year by his brother… the hazards of heating with wood once again. It had been partially rebuilt when we got there and we helped in that process with finishing touches… Kip’s height was very useful in putting up the ceiling panels! Between times, there was talk and food. One time when I was asleep, Sam told Kip all about riding the rails; how to catch a freight, which lines to go on and which to avoid, and so on. It was an education for us two White guys to be there. I do regret never having Sam cook me a meal of possum… he wanted to, but needed some lead-time (it had to be cooked for a couple of days, plus be caught!) and he had no phone.
While we were there, the recent death of Baby Tate came up in conversation (O&S # 11). Sam told me that he knew of a good guitar player called, I thought, “Ruth Johnson” down in Union, SC (home town of Bobby Robinson!). Off we went one afternoon to the local Black barbershop to locate him – he was likely to stop by after he got off of work at the local hospital. Sam tried earlier to get in touch with him at work there, but with no success… no surprise there, given his formidable appearance. Then Henry “Rufe” Johnson finally showed up at the barber shop, we talked a bit, I stuck my “road” guitar (a battered Gibson LG-1) into his hands, and magic! Then I knew that I had been introduced to one of the masters of the instrument, right there in that little barber shop in Union, SC. And he could sing like an angel! After some time listening, we made a date to meet at Peg’s place to record in a day or so (with payment promised)… taking it all in stride, he agreed straight away.
To hear Henry Johnson in person is something that, sadly, few of “us” have been able to do. He was proficient on guitar, Hawai’ian guitar, banjo, piano, harmonica, and God knows what else, plus he had an incredible baritone voice. This must be how Alan Lomax felt on hearing Son House, or Fred McDowell for the first time – blessed. It was, in retrospect, overwhelming. Fortunately, I was able to record him at some length at Sam’s place and later at Henry’s house in Union. He and Sam made a great pair, coming up to Chapel Hill/Carrboro for a couple of concerts, plus gigs at The Endangered Species, an area coffee house (thanks to Bastin). They went down famously well… imagine an un-jaded Sonny & Brownie, playing hard and with infectious enthusiasm, and you have a part of what they were like. While Sam was an old pro, practically cosmopolitan, Henry had never been out of Union County before, but he took the travel and praise in stride with total equanimity. Nothing phased him and he seemed to exude a great joy, even being a poor, Black South Carolinian – somehow, he realized that he was getting his due at last.
On the strength of one LP (on Trix), a 45 (on Flyright), and several selections from a concert (also on Flyright), it is generally agreed that Henry Johnson was the finest Black Piedmont finger-picking guitarist to be “discovered” by us White folks (or at least by me!). Unlike the almost cliché-like story of guitar beginnings, Rufe did not learn to play first in an open tuning as did most everyone else I interviewed in the S.E. (with “John Henry” being the first song learned), but in “standard” tuning (EADGBE). He entered the realm of Black musical performance in his community via the sacred, singing and playing with local quartets. Henry was also a friend of The Stapleton Brothers, local White OTM players with whom had played from time to time. In his experience, the backbiting of the quartet world became too much for him to deal with (rather un-Christian!) and he quit. So Rufe began to play secular music as well, mainly for his own enjoyment or for the entertainment of his friends – like in the barbershop. He was just “there”, and thanks to Peg Leg Sam, I was able to meet him.
In retrospect, it turns out that introduction was the result of a number of factors, some of which could be termed “luck”. It turned out later that Rufe had kidney problems. They were serious enough that he had apparently collapsed a few times while on the job. In fact, if he hadn’t been working at the local hospital, I probably wouldn’t have met him at all. Being immediately taken to the emergency room was what had pulled him through and kept him alive up to that point and allowed me to know and record him, and others to hear him in coffee-house settings or in concert. Had he held some other job, the chances are great that he would have died before 1972 (certainly, Sam intimated that later on) and that all we’d know would be second-hand. We all are fortunate that that didn’t happen and we owe the Union Co. hospital a debt of which they are blithely unaware! While I was unable to capture ALL aspects of his talents on tape, much was gotten… there should be a second album one day.
I returned home in the beginning of 1973 for a well-deserved break and to assemble the first four Trix album releases, of which Henry’s was a keystone (the others were Frank Edwards (O&S # 3, 14, 37), solo Eddie Kirkland (O&S # 49, 50, 51), and Peg Leg Sam (O&S # 16). I chose four to issue at one time so as to convince distributors of my seriousness, rather than put out albums singly, a more difficult start-up ploy to pull off. Sam and Rufe played some more in the Chapel Hill area in 1973 and they even recorded a radio jingle for a used trailer (caravan/UK) dealer in Union to be broadcast on the local radio station! I sent copies of Henry’s LP to him as soon as they were released… I was told that he was pleased and gave away or sold them, as he saw fit around Union. His community standing must have risen markedly in his neighborhood… he had a record out for a company in New York (no less)! I planned another trip down South for the Fall of 1974 and looked forward to seeing and recording Henry again. It was not to be, for his kidneys finally quit on him – Sam told me that Rufe had blown up like a balloon before he died. Had he not been Black and poor in SC, maybe he would have received dialysis treatment; then, again, maybe not. Regardless, he died in February of 1974. Yet another prod in my backside to keep up the field-work as long as possible. All I can say is as a lover of blues guitar, I personally feel that Henry Johnson was the find of the century… certainly the find of my decade “out there”.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
Henry was the full package, the real deal – how many others that were that good and were not “discovered” by the likes of us will never be known. It was all a serendipitous crap-shoot, being “found”, being recorded, going out of their immediate community. It’s a wonder that any were located! Thank god for that.