Back in July of 2008, my friend Eric Wright (this was about two months before we stared dating) asked me via email the simple question, “Do you do Blues?”
My response was this:
“Do I do blues?!? *sputtering* Yhuh! Oh man, deed I do! I have a very small collection of Robert Johnson, Son House, B.B. King, Johnny Shines and Howlin' Wolf…(I was missing some of the other greats I loved like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson because they belonged to my ex-husband and had remained in Denver with him)
I started listening to the Blues back in my senior year of college, about the time that I accidentally heard Johnny Shines playing at the Crossroads in Jacksonville. I was running round the college party scene with some friends one evening when we decided to stop at the Crossroads (present day Cooter Brown's) to hear this "blues man" who was playing in town that night. No one amongst my friends could tell me what the name of the fellow was, but when we got out of the car and I heard the music, I knew he wasn't one of the ordinary so-called blues men who came ‘round these parts. Problem was, the place was packed and they wouldn't let us in, no matter how much begging and flirting we did. So, I pleaded with my friends to stay outside just a bit longer to hear a little more. With my ear placed against the building to hear the music, and my hands placed on the wall to feel the music (cause dang, you sure could feel THAT music), I listened until they peeled me away to go find a place we could actually get into. I found out later who the musician was that was pounding and sliding on the guitar, his voice trained and untrained all at the same time...and I quit hanging out with those friends for making me leave that night. Johnny Shines died a couple of years after that. I never saw him sing, but I can sure say that I heard and felt him...”
Johnny Shines was the sound of a voice and a guitar to me, and a sepia-toned image of a middle-aged man off of the cover of his CD. I had never seen a photo of a young Johnny Shines…until yesterday.
Prompted by a Radiolab piece called Crossroads that Eric tuned me in to, I went out looking for more info on Robert Johnson (‘cause you know Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads just so he could play the blues after his wife and baby died, so there's stuff worth looking up about him). And while I was looking for more info on Robert Johnson, I stumbled upon a November 2008 Vanity Fair story entitled Searching for Robert Johnson that centered around an old snapshot purchased in 2005 off of eBay of two very young blues singers, potentially Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. The young men look like they just got paid for the first time, and aren’t sure of how their new suits fit. And although we know better, they look untouched by liquor, bad women, and hardship…
The verdict is still out on the authenticity of the photo. If it is authentic, it would be only the third existing photo of Robert Johnson (there are two bonafide photos currently out there), and maybe the earliest of Johnny Shines (there are lots of photos of Mr. Shines floating around the Internet...most of them of a middle-aged and older Shines). But now that I’ve seen this particular photo, I can’t imagine Mr. Shines any other way than the angel-faced kid in the cream-colored pre-zoot suit. I can’t even imagine what was on his mind when that photo was taken…he may have been thinking of the lyrics he had rolling around his head that he needed to set to guitar music. He may have been thinking about the rest of that leftover suit-buying money that was burning a hole in his pocket. Then again, he may have been thinking about how it was time to part ways with his friend Johnson, who was maybe drinking more frequently by then, and trying to make time with ladies he shouldn’t have been.