By Max Brzezinski
60 Minutes recently took a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and dispatched a report on the blues circa 2023: it’s aptly titled “The State of the Blues.” In it, they interview world-famous actor Morgan Freeman, electric guitar phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and best of all… Music Maker partner artist Super Chikan!
If you don’t yet know the work of Super Chikan, birth name James Johnson, this 60 Minutes spot works as a fantastic introduction. In the space of a few short minutes, Super Chikan:
- plays his mother’s favorite song
- improvises a comedic routine in the midst of a guitar breakdown
- provides a history lesson on the rhythms of sharecropping
- pitches a revision of the Robert Johnson mythos
- points out a contradiction at the heart of today’s blues-based tourism
- diagnoses a major problem with the record industry
All the while, Chikan demurs that he should be considered primarily an entertainer. But we’d be hard pressed to think of another entertainer who could so insouciantly pack as much wisdom and analysis into such little time. Super Chikan’s skills to delight and instruct shine throughout the 60 Minutes piece. Without either the self-seriousness of an academic or the goofiness of a clown, he blends incredibly compelling playing, humor and heady ideas into a stunning whole. You really don’t notice you’ve learned something important until the episode’s over.
As Chikan puts it at one point in the segment, “I make up my own sound, my own style.” And this is literally true: Chikan makes his own guitars out of old gas cans, boards, and other found materials. He’s dubbed his works chikantars. He’s made these singular guitars for famous collectors and everyday folks alike, but primarily he makes them for himself. Chikan makes his guitars to play, and they sound best in his hands.
When a musician creates an instrument for himself, he can customize it to his own musical sensibility. And that’s exactly what Chikan does: while the designs often have embedded jokes and historical themes in them, like Chikan himself, they don’t depend on gimmicks. The guitars, like the man, are singular vessels for a singular sound. In summary, we heartily recommend you check in with Super Chikan and watch 60 Minutes‘s “The State of the Blues,” and are glad Super Chikan and the contemporary blues are getting some more attention. As the man himself would say, “shoot that thang!”
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