Original LP and CD re-release
Gospel music (Black sacred music) could be considered the lowest common denominator in the history of black music (I do not mean in any qualitative sense) in that it has had some degree of inlluence on the many types of twentieth century black secular musics, from blues on up. It seems as if all the great blues and R&B performers came out of that background, either directly or not. Many of the great black vocalists remained in the field of sacred music, while others branched out into the more lucrative fields of jazz, blues, or R&B . . . with a few working both sides of the fence. The switch to the secular is one that generally occurs when the artist is relatively young, and in many instances the artist has returned later to the religious field, either for a security lacking elsewhere, or in response to some sort of “call”. It is rather unusual for an older artist to move from the religious to the secular field, but occasionally this will occur – Henry “Rufe” Johnson being one such exception to the rule.
Johnson was born in Union County, SC near the towns of Union and Jonesville on December 8, 1908 – into a typical rural black, agrarian family of those parts. There was a brother, Roosevelt – some dozen years older – that played the guitar well and this was one of the stronger influences on “Rufe” when starting out. There was a cousin named Thelmon Johnson that also played . . . he and a man named J.T. Briggs had additional effects on the developing picker. The main point of individuality in him was the fact that he started out learning to play in standard tuning (rather than in some open tuning), and that the first song he learned was “My Mother’s Grave Must Be Found”. This was to be the major direction for him to take musically, until a bit after the Second World War.
This is not to say that he never was exposed to secular musical forms . . . his relatives were not so specialized, and there were phonograph recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake (one of his favorites), and later on Blind Boy Fuller. In addition to the influences from the black community, there was an opportunity to meet and play with a few local white musicians of some note (not so unusual at that time and place). Mitchell and Mason Stapleton were rather good performers on stringed instruments (they recorded for Victor in ’31) from Union County, and one was courting the daughter of the owner of the farm on which “Rufe” was living. The three played together a good deal, and the brothers even asked him to go along with them to Charleston . . . possibly to record . . . but he stayed home with the farm and the church.
Another musical outlet was picked up around 1933, when Henry started playing the piano . . . on which he was essentially self-taught, I might add. He would hear pianists at parties, like “Come By” Shelton or Tommy Foster, and he would go home to try and play the things he had heard them doing. He was successful enough at this to work in local churches for a good twelve years (there is no example of his pianistics here, but that will be the focus of a later album). In addition to the piano duties “Rufe” was a member of many local gospel quartets, one of the most important outlets for black singers extant, starting at the age of fifteen. He did hear the likes of guitarist/singer Blind Gussie Nesbitt (now living in Charlotte) when he preached at a Union Co. church, but his work was generally in a different vein. One of the measures of success for a local group was the attaining of a radio spot, and at least two groups with which he sang had such outlets – The West Spring Friendly Four was an a cappella group that was on WSPA from Spartanburg, while The Silver Star Quartet was the second such group to go on Union’s WBSU.
This activity continued through the war, which he spent deferred and behind a mule on the farm, until 1952 – this was the year he began working at the hospital in Union, and was also when he began performing more secular material (whether or not there is connection is uncertain). Part of the reason was the quartets were falling apart too often from the personality conflicts and backbiting that can occur in any musical aggregation. Another part was an innate love of fun and a good time, and so he finally let some muslc come out at parties and such. Sacred music was by no means excluded from his repertoire, rather it was one that was broadened a lot. Sometime he also began playing harp, which he clenches in his teeth, singing around in while playing the guitar (wait until later LPs). To day he generally plays for himself, often at parties or at the local black barber shop (where l first met him), and he is constantly creating original material. . . even taping things an a little portable! “Rufe” still works at the hospital, and will retire in a couple of years (the name, by the way, is a corruption of “Rooster”, a nickname from childhood), but he keeps on playing . . . he and “Peg Leg Sam” have been doing some spots on local radio for a seller of used cars and trailers!
These sessions were the direct result of “Peg Leg Sam” pushing his old friend and even appearing on harp on two numbers (see TRIX 3302; “Medicine Show Man” – for his own stuff) . . . it should be noted that Sam doesn’t hand out praise too frequently. The rest of the titles are solo, and may show many of the various sources Henry has to draw upon . . . the church, blues, old time music (much of it white). Many facets of his ability are shown, though one record cannot do justice to the breadth of his talent . . . piano, Hawaiian-style guitar, and harp will have to come on later albums . . . but one does hear some magnificent finger picking, often with a strong ragtime approach, as well as some nice stuff with a pocket-knife. It is interesting that such a complete talent has not been out of these three surrounding counties until 1972 . . . as someone said at a recent concert appearance, “Where the hell has he been!”. A valid question, and these selections should give you some idea as to the answer to that question, at least musically.
JOIN THE ARMY – This is one of the tunes that “Rufe” has been working on over the years. . . all you have is good lyric, a superb voice, and some of the nicest picking in some time. And he doesn’t sound much like anyone you could pin down, either. (1)
WHO’S GOING HOME WITH YOU – I asked Henry if he did any numbers in “Sevastopol” without the knife, and this is what he came up with. He says that it is one of the songs he remembers his brother, Roosevelt, doing a long time ago. . . I wish he were still living . . . showing a strong “pre-blues” nature. (2)
BOOGIE, BABY! – A few standard lines start this one off, and it is surely a good number to get people moving at a party! Note the strong backing given to “Rufe” by “Peg Leg Sam” on the harp . . . not too intricate, but a good feeling! (3)
RUFE’S IMPROMPTU RAG – I got this piece in answer to a request for a guitar-only selection. . . he said, “I don’t have anything like that, but I’’ll see what I can do” . . . messed about a little and this came out. An amazing mixture of all his influences (church, rag, blues, country) that takes some unexpected twists and turns! (1)
MY MOTHER’S GRAVE WILL BE FOUND – This must be similar to the first piece he learned, but it is played in “Sevastopol” with a pocket-knife in the fretting hand. While it sounds a bit in the “Hawai’ian” mold with the chordal playing, he is holding the guitar normally. (2)
MY BABY’S HOUSE – This is another of the “set” songs that Henry does from his own creation, though it never comes up the same way twice! It is of interest, for here one notices a strong Texas influence . . . probably via Lemon, and more recently the records of Lightnin’ Hopkins. (1)
BE GLAD WHEN YOU’RE DEAD – A rollicking number that owes very little to the similarly titled song by Sam Theard. A friend into that sort of thing says he can hear a lot of hillbilly influence in this one. (2)
LITTLE SALLY JONES – I find this particular song a puzzlernent, for “Rufe” says it was one of Blind Blake’s numbers . . . but I can’t find anything like this in the songs and titles I know! Be that as it may, this is a bit out of that mould, and there sure is some fine picking on the Gibson. (3)
JOHN HENRY – Jesus, I hate this song normally, but this is the first original treatment I’ve heard in years. Henry only uses two verses, sandwiching them around a “rap” about the domestic situation of John Henry and Polly Ann – it all holds together so logically, I can’t hate this one! [And Alan Lomax loved it!](2)
CROW JANE – Probably one of the best-known “oldie” tune in blues (“Red River Blues”, et al), it predates the memories of most l’ve talked to. “Rufe” remembers hearing it played at parties when young (he would sneak off to listen), this piece makes the National sing . . . and it doesn’t always go where expected! (1)
MY DOGS BLUES – Possibly stemming from a Brownie McGhee song, this is now “Rufe’s” piece. . . another of his floating “stocks”. He has and/or creates verses by the dozen for this – here he really has nice backing from “Peg Leg Sam” that fits so well with his guitar. (3)
OLD HOME TOWN – Here is another “pre-blues” piece that is similar in melody to “My Mother’s Grave. . though there is no knife here and the tuning is standard. I find this a fascinating song, with strong echoes from white musical traditions. (2)
THE SIGN OF THE JUDGEMENT – One of two gospel pieces included, this is simply some masterful finger-picking, as well as showing Henry’s roots in the church. . . of which he is proud, and is not ashamed to mix in with the other stuff. (1)
I feel Henry Johnson is the finest finger-picking blues artist to come along in a hell of a long time, and this album should demonstrate that with ease. Hopefully this will be the first in a series of recordings by this important “find”, and will stimulate interest in this artist and others like him – the country is full of them, if you’re lucky . . . Henry is one of the best around.
(1) Union, SC – Nov 10, 1972 (2) Union, SC – Dec 9, 1972 (3) Jonesville, SC – 11 Dec, 1972
Pete Lowry (1973) contributor Living Blues
n.b. Selections from recent concerts including Henry are on:
“Carolina Country Blues”, Flyright LP 505.
Around the time of the release of these recordings, Rufe was still working at the hospital in Union and playing occasional gigs with “Peg Leg Sam”(Trix 3302 – “Medicine Show Man”) at a Chapel Hill/Carrboro club, The Endangered Species. I got copies of the LP to him which were greatly enjoyed by him, shown off to his friends and even sold once in a while. It was a point of importance in his community that he had a record out, even on such a small label as Trix! Not long after that, Henry Johnson died of kidney failure in February of 1974 in Union.
Later on, Peg Leg Sam told me that Rufe had collapsed a number of times at work. He was immediately rushed to the E.R., which resulted in his recovery. Ironically, then, if Johnson had not been employed at a hospital, “we” would never have had a chance to hear him, for he would likely have died much sooner. So thanks are due the hospital in Union, S.C. for allowing “us” to hear some of this man’s great talent. There were plans for more sessions to capture other aspects of this man’s breadth of musical ability, but that was not to be. There is likely sufficient material for another Henry Johnson collection at a later date, but his “compleat” talent will never be heard by those who never saw him in person.
But nothing can be done to change that. This particular album shows why so many people were impressed by him – sterling guitar-playing, coupled with an absolutely superb voice. Not a combination found all that often in blues and other vernacular musics. Henry Johnson is still one of the great blues “finds” of the seventies, as you will hear here.
PETER B. LOWRY CD release – 1993 (Cottekill, NY)
Henry “Rufe” Johnson was my greatest “find” out there during my decade of research in the Southeastern region of the USA in the 70s. He was the finest finger-picking blues guitarist and singer that I happened to stumble upon in my decade-long oddysey in that region. [With thanks of course to Peg Leg Sam, as I indicate in the above liner notes.] People like myself have spent long hours knocking on doors and tracking down leads looking for artists capable of the older musical styles, usually to no avail. I was one of them much of the time, but occasionally I’d strike gold. Few are as fortunate as I to locate someone as greatly talented as was Henry.
He was a successful “catch” of the folklorist’s research technique of networking from one musician to another until something good happens. And Henry Johnson was something good. He took our introduction by Sam in the local barber shop in stride, as did he recording, and later club and concert gigs up at Chapel Hill. The clientel at The Endangered Species probably had no idea how lucky they were to be in his presence, for he was a wonder. An example of how fickle the fates can be (see above 1993 notes) in our being able to know him, then have him pass quickly from our grasp.
I had planned on as many sessions as I could muster (similarly as with Willie Trice: Trix 3305 and O&S #9), hopefully get Sam and Rufe into the folk circuit of the day as a duo, w. solo portions of the act – it was not to be, at least not for Henry. He was a friendly, outgoing man who enjoyed playing music for any and all, a multi-talented player whose technique, beautiful sound, and overall soul was overwhelming. As a field-worker, one can only hope for someone that talented to cross one’s path once in the proverbial blue moon – Henry Johnson was that good.
The thirteen pieces on this album were taken from four recording sessions, half done at Henry’s home in Union, SC, the other at Peg Leg Sam’s in Jonesville, SC in 1972.
For more on Henry Johnson, see “Oddenda & Such” #17.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney
Stefan Grossman has released a DVD entitled “LEGENDARY COUNTRY BLUES GUITARISTS”: Vastopol 13129 that is distributed by Rounder Records. There is one clip of Henry Johnson doing a version of “Blood Red River”, a mainstay of his repertoire. This is a clip made by Joan Fenton while she was a folklore student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Would that there were more of “Rufe”!
Peter B. Lowry – 2015