American Routes Shortcuts: James 'Chicken Scratch' Johnson

Apr 6, 2018

James "Chicken Scratch" Johnson
Credit American Routes

Guitarist James “Chicken Scratch” Johnson grew up near Baton Rouge in Erwinville. When he was in elementary school, guitarist Albert Collins played a concert there. In that moment Johnson knew what he wanted to do. Years later, James joined with harmonica player Slim Harpo on beloved songs like “Raining in My Heart” and “Scratch My Back.” Nick Spitzer spoke with James Johnson the night before the 2016 Baton Rouge Blues Festival about playing with Slim Harpo and growing up in the country.

James Johnson: When I got out of elementary, going to high school, came to Baton Rouge to get some more school clothes. I saw this little gray guitar in this pawnshop. I didn’t buy the clothes, I bought the guitar, and I was scared to go home after. I kept playing my little guitar, and I learned myself. When I listened to the radio I’d get all I could out of it, you know, because once it go off, it might be 2 or 3 days before I hear that song again.

They got another guy they called John Tilley; his name was Big Poppa. I played with him a couple of years and he made up his mind. He wanted to join church and get out of the music business. So he told me, “I’m going to take you by this guy’s house, maybe you can play with him.” And that happened to be Slim Harpo. From there, man, I stayed with Slim for a bunch of years. I guess I was about 18, 19 years old, and I was 25 when Slim died.

The “Scratch My Back” thing, we were rehearsing one night and I just started plucking on it. That’s something I was doing, you know. He said, “Man, do that again.” So he started fooling with it and got a little better at it, a little better. He said, “Man, I’m gonna make a song out of this.” I said okay, I didn’t mind. I didn’t know nothing about trying to get no money out of it, you know, all I’m doing is trying to help Slim.

NS: And you’ve been known as “Chicken Scratch” ever since then.

JJ: It wasn’t my idea, you know, I’ll put it that way. “Chicken Scratch” Johnson, I mean I’m James Johnson! That’s all I ever was, but they started finally putting that name on me.

After Slim passed, I really didn’t have no more feeling for it. I just quit playing for like 14, 15 years.

NS: What did you do in that time to make a living?

JJ: Oh I worked as a mechanic at LSU, that’s all I did. So Raful came to me one night and said, “Look-“

NS: This is Raful Neal you’re talking about, the great Baton Rouge harp player, well-known blues man.

JJ: Right, right, yeah he came to me and he said, “Look man, I need a bass player, man.” I said, “Well Raful I haven’t played in years.” He said, “I don’t care.” I figured it was going to be just that night, you know, he needed a bass. But I was with Raful like 15, 16 years.

NS: Baton Rouge was long known by African Americans to be a blues town, but the wider population didn’t necessarily always know that. Now everyone seems to be interested in the blues again, why do you think that is?

JJ: I’ve been trying to figure that out. Why? Because at one time they used to call that devil’s music, you know, I mean it was never popular, you know.

NS: Did you think it was devil’s music?

JJ: No, I didn’t. My mom did! She was a Baptist lady, and I used to have to go outside to play my guitar. I couldn’t play it in the house. All I can tell you is the blues will never die because it’s original.

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