Johnny Billington is originally from the Delta region, and started playing guitar and singing blues after listening to the King Biscuit radio show
before he was in his teens. He would later move out to Arizona, then up to Chicago, but he never stopped playing. It was after coming back to Clarksdale in 1977, though, that he found his unique calling. For two decades now, he has been gathering together groups of young, local, black kids, and teaching them the basics of the blues. He then brings his band of teenage bluesmen with him to local schools, lecturing the kids on their heritage and instilling a
sense of pride in the rich Delta tradition.
Billington says that, at first, not everyone understood what he was doing. After all, the blues has not tended to have a savory reputation on its home turf. "After I got two or three kids that was interested, we messed and we practiced, and finally we got a few songs together to take to play. Then the next thing that happened, the police came and said, 'You have to turn the guitar amps down real low, like a radio, or turn 'em off. The neighbors and the peoples in the city are complaining about the music.'"
Billington kept at it, and the complaints and police kept coming and shutting him down. Finally, he decided to take matters into his own hands. "I went to the mayor's office and I said, 'I just come down to talk to you about me playing my guitar. I says, the police comes tell me I can't play it.'
So he said, 'Yeah, I know about it, the peoples complained.'
I said, 'Well, you know, I have three or four kids over there'.
He said, 'Yeah, we know about it'.
I said, 'Well, why don't you all go pick them up'?
And he said, 'Well, for what, why should pick 'em up'.
I said, 'Well, you need to lock 'em up'.
He says, 'For what'?
I says, 'Well, you know I have a guitar in their hand. You gonna stop us from playing it. So, you stop us from playing it and you gonna put a gun right in their hand. They're kids now, but they'll be adults tomorrow and they'll have guns rather than guitars'.
He says, 'Well, I 'm gonna call the chief'.
He call the chief and he said, 'Leave Mr. Billington alone.'"
"Mr.Johnnie: Teach Your Children Well" from Soul of the Blues
"Sweet Home Chicago" performed by Johnnie Billington. Words and music by Robert
Johnson © (1978) 1990, 1991 King of Spades Music. All rights reserved.