Musical Interview (An Interview + A Playlist including live recordings) :
Screaming Eagle & Zeke Johnson (Memphis Folk- Blues)
Welcome to Memphis, Tennessee. Legendary city of the blues and Rock’n’Roll. Music, BBQ and tasting local beer gave rhythm to my first months here. I went to the legendary Beale Street, the soil of Memphis artists, some local concert halls, but something was still missing. Where is the Blues? I mean the REAL deep Delta Blues? Memphis is supposed to be the home of the ‘Blues,’ and I didn’t see any bluesmen around Beale or even playing in the streets! I heard talented musicians playing some blues for sure (Like THIS GUY !!), but my European cliché of the Old American Bluesman singing old tunes and playing slide guitar was missing from my picture. That was before I went to Java Cabana located in the Cooper-Young district.
I discovered the coffeehouse by following some friends playing at the open-mic night that happens every Thursday from 8-10pm.: It’s a cozy place with a very friendly staff in a peaceful and colorful atmosphere that attracts a lot of warm-hearted people and creative
artists. Across the street from the cafe, an old barrel is burning with some modern cowboys around listening to some Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other Southern rock tunes or sometimes someone is playing guitar.
There is definitely something special to this place.
One Friday night, my wish for real Southern blues finally came true!
I am in love!
I ask them for an Interview with stars in my eyes, and we agreed to meet at Java Cabana the morning of the next day. Here is what I discovered:
BELOW: PLAYLIST TO LISTEN BEFORE, DURING OR AFTER THE INTERVIEW
Touch-Arts: For how long have you been playing Zeke?
Zeke: This year it will be 49 years. I began in March 1965. I have been singing ever since. I have been singing in churches and everything since I was 6 Years old. I first sang on the radio when I was 13. I always loved singing. I started playing guitar when I came home from the Marines. The music has picked up a lot in the last year and a half or so. So far so good!
T-A: What about you Chris ?
Chris : I Started to play drums at about 10 years. I didn’t pick up the guitar until I was 21. When I was 22 I wrote a song. I have been playing for a little while.
T-A: Nothing compared to Zeke…
Chris : Yeah (Laughs)
Zeke : I didn’t realize, you and I started to play guitar at about the same age… I was just past 21…
T-A: How would you define your music ? What are your influences?
Zeke : My major influence came from the Market Theater experimental theater that lasted the summer of 1963. This is when the 50’s, early 60’s folk revival was happening. We did some standard plays like Eugene O’Neil, Anton Chekoff… That is where I met Jim Dickinson. He was a legendary music producer in Memphis. He introduced me to the deep deep blues like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson… I thought I knew what Blues was before that. Some people showed me a few things but mainly I learned from records.
Chris: I will define my music as art. It’s beyond music for me. Music is a factor.
I feel more like an artist. I don’t like to put anything else on it.
It’s pretentious as fuck (laughs) I don’t want to lock myself into a niche or genre.
I got a lot of influences. My beginnings in music were really Jazz based: I liked to listen weird stuff as a little kid.
Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington. He influenced me a lot.
To this day is still the best !
In my opinion in representation of American Music there is nothing better than Duke Ellington.
T-A: How would you define the roots that bind you together?
Chris : Black Music! You can say that it comes from America, but truth is
it comes from Africa! From the fusion of the European and African sounds.
Zeke: Matter of fact It’s just a classic marriage between African ethnicity and the English language: I heard blues in several European languages even Hebrew and it just doesn’t work. There is something critical about English language to blues. After all, it came from English, that’s what we speak.
T-A: How would you define influence of African American culture On Memphis music?
Zeke: Memphis it’s not only the root of blues but also the root of rock n roll. When it comes to the beginnings of rock n roll you have the back country and western music, and the white church music. But the really back country church music is every bit as soulful as black music. Judy Dorsey on WEVL would play some really old country music recorded in the 1910’s and it would just blow your mind. Memphis was where all the black cotton pickers and field workers came to spend their money, to get drunk, chase women and listen to some music. And when blues players realized that, people came here willing to spend their money to come to listen some music they came in droves.
There is very little difference between Memphis & Mississippi music.
Musically you can find shades of difference, but its not really strong.
T-A: Screaming Eagle, you are from Nashville, what is for you the difference between Nashville & Memphis?
Chris : Hum, Youth… Hope…. Business … There is a lot of people in Nashville there to pursue a dream.
There is a lot of excitement and anticipation of greater things to come.
When I lived in Memphis people asked me: why do you live here? They are all on this missed idea that Memphis has seen its hay-day. It will never be what it once was. Seems like they are looking backward and that there is no hope for a better Memphis tomorrow.
Zeke: Dickinson used to say that Memphis was never what it once was.
Chris: (Laughs) That’s good !
T-A: Its kind of how Memphis is pictured actually: Like a touristic Historic Capital of American music oriented on what happened and not really on what will happen …
Chris: You can’t take the story from Memphis. Here you’re very close from the source of the Blues that has been the cradle of a lot of music, Mississippi particularly. This is where all began.
Zeke: If you could geographically pinpoint a birthplace of the blues, it would be the Dockery Plantation between Cleveland and Drew on Mississippi Highway 8. I’ve sat where it was, and I literally had the only ghost experience I ever had in my life. There was an abandoned store and some benches… Not broken down but tired Very very tired. I sat there playing some music. And I heard black voices saying things like “I believe that white boy got it” That’s also where I heard one line I putted in my song African Queen “Don’t call her fat she is just well supplied” I never heard anything like this again but I heard black voices in my backyard.
Anyways. Jim Dickinson used to say about Memphis that it’s really preserved as a black ancient Rome or Ancient Athens.
And that’s true! I don’t want to offense nobody but some people would call Beale Street: Disneyland by the river. And it’s kind of what it is.
They were 4 big music explosions in Memphis: Blues, Rock n Roll, the Stax Soul music Memphis was also a major capital of rap music. Three 6 Mafia won an Academy Award for the music of a movie Hustle & Flow with a song called “Hard out here for a pimp” when he is trying to make money for the rent.
Chris: It’s always has been black music whatever is happening.
Zeke: But again Lot of famous artists were also country: Johnny cash, jerry lee Lewis…
I remember like it was yesterday Jerry Lee Lewis sitting on the piano at the Duet Phillips TV show and saying: Mister Phillips: I am going to play “You win again” by hank Williams. And it has never been played that way since … Just breathtaking.
Chris : Who di Jerry Lee marry again ?
Zeke: His 13 years old cousin. (Both laughs)
T-A: What is your favorite Memphis artist of all time?
Zeke: I just couldn’t tell you my favorite artist as I couldn’t tell you my favorite cat. Furry is probably the most influential. But if I say Furry, then what about Booker White Fred McDowell, sleepy john Estes… I just couldn’t do it.
I guess for Rock n Roll, the real Elvis, the Elvis from ’55 to ’60 before he came back from the army. When Elvis first came out it was said that he was the mama’s worst nightmare. Because when those girls heard him singing, they were ready for it, and they were ready for it immediately. (Laughs)
T.A: What about you Chris?
Chris: Easy for me, its Mister Zeke Johnson and Valerie June.
T-A: So it answers the second question which was what is your favorite musician living in Memphis?
Chris: In Memphis? Zeke Johnson!
T.A: And you Zeke?
Zeke: I got two actually: Chris and Kyle Carmon. You may have heard Kyle playing here. I include him in among what I call the blues Puppies. I was a blues puppy when I was that age and Chris and Kyle are really definitely blues puppies.
Chris: I don’t sing the blues. Never have.
Zeke: Everybody sings the blues… I got to tell a quick story about Furry. Sometimes he could get really dramatic. He would hold this slide and say:” Zeke, I would be nothing without this slide.” That was not true! Furry could play fine guitar even without a slide but that was his signature for sure. That’s what made him famous.
I think Valerie June is my favorite girl singer from Memphis! She reminds me so much of Victoria Williams! She really sounds a great deal like Valerie despite Vickie is white. I was proud myself to sound as black as I possibly can.
I will never say I am completely black because I am not but at least I get close to it.
T-A: How would you define Memphis music industry?
Chris : Recording is really what Memphis has to offer to the industry. There are so many studios here. I mean Sun, I guess not a lot of people are recording there but you can also go to studios where legends have recorded. You can go where Al green used to record that’s crazy!
Zeke: Sun Studio, that’s where Elvis recorded.
T-A: Did you record in Memphis?
Zeke: I recorded at Ardent Records. I also had a few takes at the American Studio. That’s where Ringo Starr recorded that album he stopped lately because it was at the very the worst of his drinking I always been few confident as a performer but I never thought I was much as a songwriter and Chris put that non sense out of me: If you think you are not a songwriter dismiss it. You can do it if you want. I wrote 30 songs since the last 7 months. I don’t say they are all good but most of them are good. A British website gave “African Queen” a nice review but I don’t know if you can trust a British website (laughs).
T-A: Chris, You seemed pretty dark sooner when you talked about Music in Memphis. Zeke, do you agree?
Zeke: For the most part, yes. It’s true all over but it seems sometimes especially true in Memphis. The dark side is that If you really want to hear good music you still have to go to the beer joints and the honkytonks and the juke joints but the big public venue has already slicked up Beale Street.
The way they redid Beale Street is nothing like the original. It’s hard to think of bright pastel pink as having a dark side, but even for example singing in the Handy Park… There is a contrived notion to it now. It seems so fake to me. My love in Memphis Music can be described by a fact that happened the night after the Grammys: I went to an Open Mic night at some place and I heard better music there than I ever heard on the Grammys. But Yeah, there is darkness and scariness no matter what you do: Your success depends on public taste. Because if the public don’t like it, then you will never make it. It’s cruel but it’s fair. That’s why I always wanted to have at least one record out there. At least I would have my shot. If I had my shot and people don’t like it well then that’s what it supposed to be.
T-A: You played yesterday at Java Cabana and you play every last Friday of the month, what brings you here every month?
Zeke: I have seen the revival of the Coffeehouse in Memphis. Not only here it is Otherlands, republic coffee, I am sure there some others that I am missing. I first started coming in here when Tommy Foster owned the place 20 years ago. It’s just a wonderful place.
Chris: there is something personal to me to in this place in particular. For artists it’s like a community center.
Zeke: And the Best veggie sausage biscuit in town!
Chris: When I first moved to Memphis, I was looking for places to play and people to play with and my first month here Valerie June was playing. The owner let me have a show… That was huge for me! There is lot of people here
that helped me get more shows.
It’s Like a vortex man, it drives people, it drives a lot of creative energy that is where we met with Zeke.
Zeke: Even when you come here and the place is empty, Mary and the people she hires are really cool people. So it’s fun just to be around. The 3 things that kept me around: Younger women, and more seriously my cats and my music. And the music helps so much. Blues is my partner for 49 years. You never make a whole bunch of money in a setting like this. But if it was about the money I wouldn’t be doing this for almost 50 years. But just for the fun of it. Just get up and play and make people feel good. Last night everybody was just grooving and jumping. It’s just magic!
T-A: You want to play?
Zeke : Sure ! Just a brief background about the song : Furry used to always say when he took somebody’s tune or took somebody’s word “I studed it”
On this song there is a refrain that I sing twice that I studed from a Blind Willie Mc Tell song called “Cheney”.
T-A: Wow, this sounds amazing! I love the sound of that guitar!
Zeke: Thanks! Something about that guitar: It has been in the hands of Fred Mcdowell, Furry Lewis, Booker White, Sleepy John Estes and Jessie Mac Hemphill.
T-A: Zeke you seem to know a lot of very influential people from Memphis Blues… And you Chris do you know some good bluesmen except Zeke who kind of influenced you here in Memphis?
Chris: I have listen to a lot of blues here but when I first met Zeke he basically told me that he wanted to pass on his music to me and he didn’t want it to get lost. He explained it like an honor.
I laid here and had this moment where I was listening some Pandora Station of Blues and Fred McDowell came on. I heard it, I think every musician had this moment where you hear something and the World stops you stop every conversation to find out who sang this. And after that moment I realized that Fred gave his music to Zeke and now Zeke gave it to me in that same way. And I felt like Music called me to be a part of something. It was a big honor.
It’s this kind of fleeting moment where you realize
“Oh my Gosh, I’m part of that legacy!”
T-A: Can you play a song from Fred Macdowell ?
Chris: I don’t usually play songs of other people, I will play a song called Little Foot in a tuning that Zeke taught me and inspired by Zeke.
Chris: What about your favorite one? Zeke always requests this one saying it’s one of his favorites. And it’s becoming one of mine too.
Zeke: I love it! Furry used to say to me: « Zeke One of these day, Blues is gonna come back and it’s gonna be a big popular music again. » And I never verbally disagreed with him but I said: Probably not.
It will probably continue to be coffeehouse, library and lecture music but it’s still a lot of people.
This song, I don’t remember if it’s Cannon Jug Stompers or the Memphis Jug Band …
I think it is the purest Memphis sound of everything I know and Furry, compared to Gus Cannon was a child! I mean Gus Cannon was born in the 1870’s he was 15 years old when Furry was born…
Zeke: You don’t get any deeper in the Memphis Sound. You talk about hardcore, THAT is Hardcore.
T-A: Thank y’all for this Interview. You are both proving that Blues is still here!
Want to say something to finish?
Zeke: Blues survived largely because of European interest. They were probably more people in Paris and Stockholm who knew about Furry Lewis than there were in Memphis. As an example of interest, 2 British researchers Dixon and Goodrich in 1943 made the first discography of Blues & Gospel Music. There is a compilation of Memphis published in France called “Memphis Treat »on Bang Records. I got 2 tracks on it from a live session of 1987. So yeah, the good people of Europe deserve their place in the legend. To Europe I say: Danke, Grazie, Merci!
T-A: Et Merci à vous Y’all!
Zeke: I love to hear French people saying Y’all ! It’s so cool!
You can listen and purchase Screaming Eagle & Zeke Johnson album on Bandcamp