Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Stand Your Ground
Delta Groove Music
By Terry Abrahamson
Boss Fenton had come to Frank Palmer’s to buy guns; three of them retooled ready-in-your-pocket German numbers that Frank’s cousin “Colonel Bobby” was shippin’ ‘cross the ocean and back to Tennessee by the crate. It was a rare dry day in the rainy July of 1921, and The Boss needed to get back to the whorehouse, makin’ sure the ladies kept that traffic flowin’ at a steady clip. But Frank was takin’ his sweet time fetchin’ those Luger P-08’s, and The Boss’s idling Lincoln was guzzlin’ Mr. Rockefeller’s oil like the French mud had guzzled the blood of his daddy and his uncles, leaving him to run the whorehouse at the tender age of 19. “Turn it off!” Boss Fenton hollared to Ray and Jethro waitin’ in the car a heartbeat before Frank returned, lid open on the mahogany box that cradled the three pistols. But as The Boss felt the cold steel of Frank’s handiwork, Ray cut the motor, leaving only the near-distant sound of a different kind of steel, handmade into a guitar that was backin’ a voice woven from splinters and cornhusk. The Boss returned the Luger to the box, muttering “We’re good,” as he turned to the human scarecrow perched on the crate on the porch of the share-cropper’s shack 40 yards away, singin’ “Baby, Please Set a Date” to the 11 year old nigra kid squatting frogstyle at his feet.
Tucking the box under his arm, The Boss walked to the singin’ scarecrow, choosing not to hear Palmer’s “You don’t wanna shoot one?” As you might expect of
a man accepting the title and mantle of “Boss” with the wicks barely cool on his 17 candles, Clyde Fenton had never been the deferential type. But he stood in respectful silence until the scarecrow finished the song. “What’s your name, son?” “John Long,” the scarecrow replied to the younger man who had called him “son.” “And what’s this boy to you,” the younger man asked him. “This here is James. He just come by, asked me if I’d learn him a song.” “Where you stay, boy?” “Somerville,” the kid answered, rising, but averting his gaze. “Somerville’s a ways down the road, ain’t it, James? You best be headin’ on home ‘fore you get homesick.” Besides, John Long and me got some binness to talk.”
So, to wrap this up, Boss Fenton offers John Long a gig playing that homemade guitar and singin’ in the parlor of the whorehouse, buys John Long some fancy suits and offers John the pick of the women. John’s making good money, but still gives lessons to James back on the porch of the sharecropper’s shack he rents from Frank Palmer. Then one day, a new girl, Miss Capri Cortez is brought to The Boss, but he’s so taken with her that he keeps her for himself, falls in love with her, gets her tutors and culture and they marry, and John Long plays his guitar as Miss Capri walks down the aisle. And life is good, until Miss Capri, pregnant by The Boss, but in love with the stoic, unrequiting-but-feelin’-it John Long, calls John’s name in her sleep. Betrayed and vengeful, The Boss shows up late one night, with Ray and Jethro in tow, at John’s shack. Fenton sends Ray in to kill John Long. But Ray’s Luger - never test-fired by The Boss - jams and John Long knocks Ray senseless with his guitar, grabs the gun and - when Boss Fenton and Jethro enter, he shoots them both dead with Ray’s gun, grabs his guitar and ducks out of town.
Twenty years pass. Just outside of Kansas City, John Long is lugging his Mop, Bucket & Broom through the varnish plant he’s worked at for eight years, when in walks the plant foreman to give a tour to the new owners: Capri Cortez Fenton and her son Chester, the boy she was carrying when his daddy was killed by John Long. She wants to rekindle the romance, but fears that when Chester learns John’s true identity, her son will kill the only man she ever really loved.
I can’t reveal the ending of The Story of John Long, starring Daniel Day Lewis (although I’d settle for Michael Shannon in a heartbeat) in the title role, because I haven’t gotten that far. I made it all up from the images that fill my head every time I listen to Stand Your Ground, the new CD by a guy who has been a mythical character lodged firmly in my heart and in my mind for 43 years. I was 22 and moving to Boston, determined to set up an East Coast tour for Maxwell Street legend and perennial Alice’s Revisited opening act “Not Totally Blind” Jim Brewer, and was trying to amass a roster of other Chicago barely-knowns I could catapult to a lesser degree of obscurity. I had seen Johnny Long, as I remember knowing him, at the Quiet Knight or No Exit or Somebody Else’s Troubles, and added his three-song reel-to-reel demo tape to a stack of other local heroes I adored but had no clue how to book that included folkies Art Thieme and Ginny Clemens. Come to think of it, I might’ve met him through Homesick James, who I knew fairly well at the time when he was living on Honore Street in one of those under-the-sidewalk apartments.
Once I got to Boston in May of 1973, my time was pretty much consumed by Jim Brewer and a kid from Delaware named Thorogood, and those other Chicago coffeehouse middle-of-the-week headliners remained in my heart, but never made it onto my artist roster. But just like Art and Ginny, Johnny Long’s reel-to-reel lived on in my cassettes, my burn-em-yourself CDs and, now, my IPhone. And every time I’d meet somebody for who the term “bottleneck” meant more than the Hillside Strangler on the Ike, I’d ask: “D’ya ever come across a guy named Johnny Long?” And many were the unsuspecting occupants of my van’s deathseat who were treated to the tape-hiss-heavy renditions of “Take a Little Walk with Me” and “Weather-Changing Woman” and something I think was called “Catch Me a Train” by a guy I’d long since given up for dead.
Then, around 15 years ago, somebody told me there was a guy playing Blues in Colorado by the name of John Long. Then, around four years ago, I found him online and ordered his CD, appropriately titled Lost and Found. I felt like the Sam Spade of the Blues, finding “the black bird” on the internet. I was in heaven, and saw to it that Lost and Found made it a Blue Christmas for some of my brothers and sisters in musical arms.
So, a few more years passed, and here I am doing these reviews for Chicago Blues Guide, and - never suspecting he’s even recorded another CD - I mention to Ms. Linda my publisher, editor and fashion guru, “Listen, I know there’s this ‘thing’ you have about if it ain’t a Chicago-centric CD, we don’t review it, but there’s a guy in Denver who I kinda knew, but not really, who lived in Chicago in the early '70s and his name’s John Long, and if he ever....” And she sent me Stand Your Ground, and it just totally transported me to the front porch of my Clarksdale home away from home, the Chicken Coop of the Shack Up Inn, which is as close to the real deal as I expect to ever be. But it’s where this music was meant to be heard. Because, to me, these songs are prayers. They elevate us, a little closer to a deeper light cast upon us all by the flowing, rumbling, field-shouting spirit of the music that rose from America, and the America that rises from the music. And I want to believe that John Long’s prayers ring out loudest, clearest and truest from a creakin’ seat on a Mississippi porch. Okay, or a Tennessee porch.
John Long did not teach Homesick James “Baby Please Set a Date.” But the version that opens Stand Your Ground has a feeling that takes me decades back and an overnight trainride south of Homesick’s, with Fred Kaplan working that Dodge City saloon piano like nobody should do this song without it. “Red Hawk” left me breathless. First off, he writes a song that 99 out of a hundred Blues archaeologists would’ve pegged as a century old. Then his understated vocal acrobatics drag us through the cotton and dance us on the head of a pin, giving freshness and excitement to music seldom synonymized (Homesick James’ word, not mine) with this genre.
Stand Your Ground gives us folklore, history, hard-workin’ men with cheatin’ wives, brotherhood, the rockin’est recruitment tool ever for the janitorial profession, Jesus, a psa for Parkinson’s disease and a 1938 Samsonite suitcase that keeps the time. “Welcome Mat” wrapped me in a big, cozy, ‘The Ol’ Blues Still Loves Ya’ hug. Mike Cronic’s “Mop, Bucket and a Broom” sets the whole hen-house a-shakin’ to a half-speed Hucklebuck, and “Suitcase Stomp” reminds us that if rock’n’roll never got no further than this, it would still have changed the world.
I survived on three Johnny Long tunes for two-thirds of my life. His 13 new songs give my most enduring Blues myth a sparkle, snap and power that I hope will touch others, playing out on the movie screens and front porches of their hearts and their souls.
Terry Abrahamson won a Grammy by writing songs for Muddy Waters. He helped launch George Thorogood’s career and created John Lee Hooker’s first radio commercial, which are just a few of his accomplishments. Terry also is a playwright. He and partner Derrick Procell are currently writing songs with Mud Morganfield, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Eddie Shaw and Big Llou Johnson. He authored the acclaimed photography book, In The Belly of The Blues – Chicago to Boston to L.A. 1969 to 1983 -- A Memoir. For info visit: www.inthebellyoftheblues.com