Johnny Shines went deer hunting in Alabama one day, and it got him thinking about the blues.
"I was shooting at this deer," the Tennessee-born bluesman recalls, "and I shot her in the neck. I shot her about four or five times--I was trying to break her neck--she was bleeding. And along comes this young fawn, her child, and you know she sat down while I was shooting at her, blood coming down all on the side of her neck, and she waited for it? She was dying and she sat down and waited for her child, to try and protect him. I thought, look at that, a "dumb animal,' and she stops to protect her child while she's being shot at!
"And I got to thinking about a woman, y'know, will have a baby and just leave him out on the hospital steps somewhere, a human woman, and won't even care about it. And that's what we've done to the blues, we've left 'em lying there, not thinking about 'em, just like that woman left her baby."
Not too many years ago, Shines's own career was in danger of being forgotten like an abandoned baby. In the mid-50s, after having recorded some of Chicago blues' most magnificent sides for the J.O.B. label, he found himself broke and disgusted with the sordid intricacies of the music industry. He pawned all his equipment--about $3,000 worth--for $100, tore the ticket up, and threw it on the floor. He was through.
Ten years later, a pair of British blues fans talked him into coming back. The "blues revival" was in full swing, and a new generation was ready to embrace Shines and his contemporaries as irreplaceable American cultural treasures. This time around, Shines found that he could play the blues and keep his finances and dignity intact.
More important to listeners, he returned with undiminished abilities. Shines's voice is among the most powerful ever recorded in blues: it roars through slow blues and rollicking up-tempo numbers alike with shattering intensity, sometimes almost physical in its impact. For most of his career, Shines was also among our most accomplished blues guitarists. His slide, especially, was notable for its taut urgency and melodic adventurousness. A stroke in 1980 curtailed that manual dexterity considerably, but he's as leather-lunged as ever. His performances can still evoke the glory era of Chicago blues--as well as his early scuffling days in the 1930s with legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson--with effortless ease and a compelling immediacy.
Since resurrecting himself from near-obscurity, Shines has become dedicated to reestablishing the blues in the black community, a process he feels is inextricably connected with resurrecting pride in African American history and identity.
"We have been taught that everything black was no good for us," he says. "We have been taught that this [black] woman here sleep with her fists doubled up and her lips full of snuff, on the one hand, and poison in the other; she want to put poison in our greens and stuff; that the black woman was no good. But still it was forbidden for us to touch the white woman! A whole lot of dying gotta be done before these things go. We don't appreciate ourselves; we don't want to know anything about ourselves. If you don't know where you come from, how in the hell you know where you're going?
"The blues was killed [in the black community] because of some of the things that happened in slavery times, when people really had the blues. A young boy would be usually singing as a form of communication. He had a girl on this other plantation, and he decided that he was going to run off, try to go north. And later on in the evening when the dew begin to fall and the leaves begin to get wet, and the echo travel far, he would raise up and sing: 'Oooooh, if you see my baby / Tell her for me, tell her for me, tell her for me / By this time next week / I will be free, I will be free, I will be free! / There's one thing I want her to know / Let me hear that mule if she wanna go!'
"Then she'd tell her brother what to sing back, and her brother would sing back to him. That way they communicated with each other. But you always had somebody, a Judas in the bunch. And somebody told the master what was happening. So he told them, 'Don't sing those songs, they're blues! And if you sing those blues, you'll die and go to hell and burn in fire and brimstone forever!' And I know when I was a boy, a young man caught whistling the blues, a girl's father didn't allow him in their house."
It takes a long time to undo the ravages of history, but Shines is confident that the spirit of survival and dignity that permeates blues tradition will ensure the music's future. "The blues will never get lost; it's going to be saved by the web between the fingers, y'know? It's going to be saved."
The 75-year-old Shines, who lives in Alabama now and seldom gets to Chicago, will be doing his bit to save the blues at Rosa's, 3420 W. Armitage, this weekend, Friday through Sunday. Also featured is Shines's old J.O.B. compatriot, pianist Sunnyland Slim. Call 342-0452 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.