“The Dapper John.” Mississippi bluesman Johnnie ‘Mr. Johnnie’ Billington was never without a suit and tie. Smartly distinguished was his look. Billingtion’s name was typically part of any conversation about educating the next generation of blues musicians or as the tag-line of our film reads, “keeping the blues alive” in the Clarksdale region. So in August of 2010, on a 90-plus degree day in the ‘Sip, the “True Delta” team and I drove to meet Mr. Johnnie for an interview at his building in the tiny town of Lambert in Quitman County.

The building, in the center of town had a vast open space with wood-paneled walls and stage where Billington, the teacher, used to give young musicians instruction in music and their rich Delta heritage. There also wasn’t a hint of air-conditioning in that room. While every ounce of moisture in my body was rapidly evaporating and I subsequently began to wilt in the oppressive heat, Mr. Johnnie – “the Dapper John” – didn’t break a sweat. Work in the cotton fields under the Mississippi sun as a child may have cleared the path for that cool resolve. Lengthening my sentence in that air-conditionerless room was Billington’s “interview-style” — a direct question was often met with a parable or a story that followed a path as winding as the state’s dusty back-roads. However his history, his gravelly voice with its lilting southern drawl, his easy smile, his peculiar mix of wit and wisdom flavored with a bit of contrariness made for a colorful adventure.

I last saw Johnnie Billington in August of 2012 at a screening of “True Delta” during the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. The film was followed by a panel discussion we arranged titled: “The State of the Blues” with True Delta’s writer, co-director and co-producer Lee Quinby, Roger Stolle, Jim O’Neal, Dr. Luther Brown, Carol Marble, and Reverend Matthew Terrell of Bell Grove Baptist Church. James ‘Super Chikan’ Johnson ended up being a no show. In any case, Mr. Billington, of course in a suit and tie, was frail, struggling a bit with his balance and softer-spoken. So when I saw Roger Stolle’s tribute, I was not so much surprised as I was saddened by Mr. Johnnie’s passing.

His name adds to the roster of iconic music makers, innovators and torch-bearers who have died since Lee, Daniel Cowen, Michael Scanlan and I began this project in 2010. Foster “Tater” Wiley, Big Jack “The Oilman” Johnson, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Melville Tillis are all people we had direct contact with. Other passing blues legends include: Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins and Hubert Sumlin.

Billington’s reach extended beyond the blues. For years, he gathered together groups of young, local, black kids, to instill in them pride and teach them life skills, like how to dress, act, play the guitar and how to fix lawn mowers. The bluesman and his method of teaching were partly the inspiration behind the creation of an after-school apprenticeship program run by John Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Company for Clarksdale youth and the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.

Here is a story I did for CBS News about Billington:

One thought on “The Dapper John 1935-2013

  1. eb

    It is interesting reading your remembrances of Dapper John. I had the opportunity to see the documentary last fall. And I was so transfixed by Dapper John’s earnest commitment to the music its past and what its future might be that I did not even notice or think about the fact that he was not sweating in that Mississippi heat. I also failed to notice he was in a suit in tie. And I guess that is a tribute to how engaging his discussions about the blues were. He could have been wearing paisley pajamas and I probably would not have noticed because I would have been focused on him and the history that lived in his skin and came from his mouth. I have never been to Mississippi. (I did volunteer in New Orleans after Katrina hit) But listening to Dapper John and taking in the documentary I felt like I was right there for the duration of the film. I remember Dapper John talking about his skill with lawn mowers. So I chuckled when you brought that up in your remembrance. Blues and cut grass–Bluegrass–maybe that’s where that genre comes from 🙂 Pathos and humor what the blues were all about and what Dapper John embodied.

    Touche

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