Johnie Lewis Interview
“I said well Lord, if you let me live to see tomorrow I’m going to get me a guitar. That’s how I had my start. Then I went to Mrs. Patterson Pawn Shop”… “and I bought me a guitar with the name was Value. That’s the name of the guitar with pearl and ivory all around it. About a week, I was playing pretty good. Then I could hear that song about the water pipe done busted, the water running cold, I just want some sweet mama come and give me jelly roll, you know you’re grieving me. I packed my suitcase, I’m goin’ all the way back to Tennessee. That’s the first piece I learned, so I never have forgot it.” – Big Joe Williams
- The Robert Stone Sacred Steel Archive: Elton Noble Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Johnie Lewis
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Location: Chicago, IL
This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
Johnie Lewis Interview Transcript:
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Chris Strachwitz: I just want to get a little story about you, yourself so if you can tell me, what’s your birth date?
Johnie Lewis: My birthday is October the 8, 1908.
Chris Strachwitz: October the 8, 1908?
Johnie Lewis: Yes, October the 8, 1908.
Chris Strachwitz: And where were you born?
Johnie Lewis: Eufaula, Alabama. You probably have never heard of it, but it’s-
Chris Strachwitz: No, I sure haven’t.
Johnie Lewis: Well it’s E-U-F-A-U-L-A.
Chris Strachwitz: Uh-huh, where’s that near?
Johnie Lewis: Down about 80 miles south of Montgomery. Right on the Montgomery highway.
Chris Strachwitz: Did your father sharecrop?
Johnie Lewis: Yes, on the farm, although, when I wrote the song about my father ….?…. my mother wouldn’t even call my name, that was … Of course, I left home, I did leave home at 14. When I was turning to my 15 I left home.
Chris Strachwitz: Where’d you go then?
Johnie Lewis: Well, I went to Midway, Alabama, went down to Clayton. Then I got to working with saw mills and I was pretty young for that but they hide me and I worked. Then I got on what they call a road gang, they’re doing such thing as repairing highway roads during them days through the country. They cut highways but they was dirt roads and we cut highway all the way from Union Springs on down through Montgomery on out to Eufaula and then Georgetown on down to Florida.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you play guitar then already?
Johnie Lewis: No, at that time I wasn’t doing much playing. I started playing after I got married, well I monkeyed around with it a little bit. Then being away from home I come to getting lonesome and I’d be laying down in the bed, sitting around to myself and I was used to us four brothers being together and then I parted from them and I started getting pretty lonesome and homesick and I started hearing songs I knew I’d seen somebody playing. Then I went and I was…
Well I had been out in East [?] looking for a job and I run across a fellow, […?…) ] I came by his house. He was making some ironing buckets, I don’t know whether you know what those is or not. You take a water bucket, a pail or what you call it, or a tub and you fill it half full of cement. First you put some ashes or some dirt at the bottom, pile your cement on top, cut you a slot in the side for the air to come out, and then you put you some pegs in the cement while it’s wet. Then when it’s set up and before it gets too dry, you pull the pegs out, you take your spade or shovel and pull the ashes out, man you’ve got your ironing bucket. People used to iron, there wasn’t no such thing down there, I didn’t hear talk of the electric iron. My mother and my sister could iron shirts better than this one I got on here. That’s the way I made all the buckets.
Charlie Grant. He was the first man I ever, I had never talked to nobody making ironing buckets. That was in Columbus, Georgia, I’d done left Alabama then. I came to Columbus, Georgia and I saw him making that ironing bucket and then I went to see what he was doing and he had a guitar sitting up there side of his porch, and I asked him could he play. In that day money was money then, you had a dollar you was half rich. I had about 50 cents in my pocket and I asked him could he play and he told me yeah and I told him, I can give you a quarter to play. And he said oh yeah, say, I’ll play. And he got to playing this piece about it’s so cold up north until the birds can’t hardly sing.
He was playing for a dance over in Alabama then and you know Chattanooga.
Chris Strachwitz: What was this fellows name again?
Johnie Lewis: Charlie Grant.
Chris Strachwitz: How old do you think you were then?
Johnie Lewis: Well at that time I was about 18, somewhere around 18.
Chris Strachwitz: And you were just traveling all by yourself, your brothers stayed home?
Johnie Lewis: My brothers stayed home, they was home and I went off by myself. Then I got down Midway, Alabama, I left there, went to Clayton and I started with the guy with the road there making two dollars a day then, and I thought then I was a rich man. Because I had been working for 30 cents an hour, two meals and 50 cents a day from sun to sun. It’d be dark when you go to work and it’d be dark when you come from work. So the hours, I don’t know just 12-14 hours a day. I would go with him over in Alabama, just across the river, right down beside the river and that was Alabama, you know, Chattanooga River. On one side was Georgia and the other side is Alabama.
To me, was the prettiest girl that I ever seen in my life. Charlie got to playing that piece about, it’s so cold up north until the birds can’t hardly sing and that girl’s husband he had just left from where she stayed and went off with another girl, come up north somewhere. I don’t know now where if it’s Chicago but I know it’s- then she started screaming. And I was struck over that. That worried me all the way home, I didn’t say nothing to Charlie. I said well Lord, if you let me live to see tomorrow I’m going to get me a guitar.
That’s how I had my start. Then I went to Mrs. Patterson Pawn Shop. 1300 Broadway, Columbus, Georgia, and he had a pawn shop and I bought me a guitar with the name was Value. That’s the name of the guitar with pearl and ivory all around it. About a week, I was playing pretty good. Then I could hear that song about the water pipe done busted, the water running cold, I just want some sweet mama come and give me jelly roll, you know you’re grieving me. I packed my suitcase, I’m gonna all the way back to Tennessee. That’s the first piece I learned, so I never have forgot it.
Chris Strachwitz: Did she like it too?
Johnie Lewis: I never did see her anymore. I don’t know where she left and went north, and Charlie he wouldn’t take me back over there, of course he could tell looked like I kind of had an eye on her but I couldn’t tour after- course he wasn’t my friend, that’s the first time I met him and he was married and I thought that the girl was single and I was single and that I should’ve been pulling at her, but … So I had been dreaming about my wife, which I saw the other day, and somebody had done told me in my dream that this girl is living at 2008 4th Avenue and you go there and that’s going to be your wife. And I got up during the night, I was living then with my sister [Mahalia Lemon] in Columbus, Georgia, 321 – 21st Street. I could see her all night and so that morning I wrote the number down and I went to look for her and there she was.
Chris Strachwitz: That was your present wife?
Johnie Lewis: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right?
Johnie Lewis: That’s right, she’ll tell you. Then I told her, I said you’re going to be my wife. She had a sister, about three or four girls, Josie and Marie and all of them was there. It was just like that picture there. I looked the crowd over, I went and knocked on the door, and I was a strange boy there. Josie says Mrs. Pearl, says there’s a boy here. She says, “Who are you?” She’s back in the kitchen, cooking. That’s my wife’s sister. The other girls was up there playing music. She said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Tell her to come here.” Mrs. Pearl, my sister in law, she came to the door and had a middle door in the front room then into the second room on back to the kitchen, way on the back.
She came in, she said “Who you want to see?” I said, “Do you have a sister?” Said “Yeah.” I said, “You live here?” “Yeah,” I said “All y’all live here?” She said “No, just my sister and I and my husband.” I said “Your sister married?” She said “No.” I said, “Well, I’m your brother-in-law.” (laughter) She said “What you mean? Is this boy crazy or what? What you talking? You know my sister?” I said “No.” She said, “What is you talking about?” I said, “I’m going to be your brother-in-law if you’ve got a sister and she’s still here.” I said, “I seen that in my sleep.” Then I commenced to describe to her, you know my wife is big-limbed and I start describing and telling the whole color. She said, oh you done seen my sister, you can’t tell me.”
At the time, my wife was gone up to her mother who was living in Harris County. So I said, Well, I want to stay here until she comes, so I stayed and stayed and she didn’t come. Got up there Sunday night, she didn’t come until Monday. So right back Monday I was there, after I got off work I went straight there. She was working then in Columbus Mills. It’s called Columbus Manufacture Company now but that’s where they make cloth clothes and everything. It was a cotton mill, I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in one or not.
Chris Strachwitz: No sir.
Johnie Lewis: Where you make cotton and you [?] and then you bail it up and you… Well it’s a big, long story. It goes through the opening room, opening room, card room, card room, spinning room, the card room, spinning room, weave shop and all on, and then they end up in the cloth room, then they make the cloth then. Then you got a great big long box as long as this place here you might say, and high as up there. That cloth, it goes in that door and it comes out hot and stiff. You would fold it over there and at one time it was my job is to cut it into yards, so many yards. If you want 100 yard or 150 yard or want 25 yard, I’d cut it. And you had to be fast, and you’d have what they call a “key” you snatch it out, you cut the cloth, wrap it around the little rod here. Throw your key in there, and you still don’t lose what you … you’ve got to be quick with these. Don’t the cloth will go in all kinds of ways and fall out and lap all outside the box, then the boss would get on you.
So I’d get back to this, and then I said “Well, I’m going to stay right here if you don’t mind, til 8 o’clock and see when she comes.” She said, “Well you can stay. Where you live?” I told her. Finally, I looked out and saw my wife was coming down the hill to where they live, and I said “There comes that girl I was talking about.” Said “What does she mean to you?” I said “I don’t know what she means, but she’s going to be my wife.” So my wife came in, she came in when walked in, and those girls would come over there I reckon every day and be with my sister-in-law. Didn’t work, her husband was the supervisor at the job there at that time.
So she walks in and she walked on back to the kitchen and her sister, [Annie?] says “Odessa, there’s a boy in there wants to see you.” Say, “I believe he knows you because they said he can scribe you.” And she said “Who, that old boy sitting there?” And at that time, you see the time just rolled around come right back, at that time if you ever come to my house again, I can show you how my hair … my hair was, we wore it just like the fellas wear it now, that long.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right?
Johnie Lewis: That’s right, we wore our hair real long. I had a bushy head of hair then. I called her, I told her my name, and I asked her for her name, she seemed like didn’t want to tell, so when I expressed what was on my mind, she said, “Well no, I’ve got a boyfriend, and I don’t do double troubles.” I said, “Well, that’s just what you think. And you have never did it and you’re not going to start it.” She said, “No, there are plenty of girls there, got Josie and all of em, they’re not married. You can go over there and talk. I’m going to expect my boyfriend.” I said “Well then I’ll give him some ground, but I’ll come back.” So I left, because I didn’t want him to come catch me talking. I wasn’t interested in the other girls. The next evening I was right back there. So she seen that I meant business.
Finally she looked wasn’t making no head telling me one thing and another, so she finally told me said, “Well, yes.” And from then, I started to taking her out a little, she never was a [?] of going nowhere much, I took her over to my sister there and let her meet them and in a little while I was married.
Chris Strachwitz: What is her name?
Johnie Lewis: Odessie.
Chris Strachwitz: Odessa.
Johnie Lewis: O-D-E-S-S-I-E. I went then to [Harris County ?] with her to her mother’s. The first time I met her mother and her dad, I asked for her, said, “What you talking about?” In them days, it’s not like it is now, they’re going to ask you a whole lot of you would say crazy questions. “What you want with her? What you going to do with her? Is you going to marry my daughter to beat her up? I tell you I’ll stick you in jail, the old man come, and if you bruise my gal up I tell you what I’ll do. You see this stick?” He said “It’d be you and me and this stick.” Well you can’t talk back at him then. If you would, you’ll … Course I wasn’t even home, but if he’d told my daddy, he’d have caught the wagon or … He was a long way from the train station, he’d have caught a bus or something and he’d come to Columbus and beat the slop outta me, you would call it.
Johnie Lewis: So I was afraid to say anything, so finally I just kept laying with them. So they gave it to me and we got married. And we’ve been married ever since then, that’s been forty some odd years ago.
Chris Strachwitz: And when did you finally come up here to Chicago?
Johnie Lewis: I came ’49.
Chris Strachwitz: What made you decide to come up here?
Johnie Lewis: Well, that’s digging down a little deep. I was first running a bowling alley. I’m the onliest colored up to so far ever ran the bowling alley in Columbus, Georgia. When I bought the place with nobody, no whites, no colored, well to myself. The closest person would be about a mile or pretty close. So the wife moved around, we thought we was getting on so lovely. The man and wife felt like she liked my wife, they moved right on down the line. That line was I would say about 150 feet or 200 from them. And then they moved in. At the time I had kids, they had kids, they had a little girl and a boy, and we had a little girl and a boy, they were round about the same age, and those kids got on so lovely together.
My wife and this lady, her name was Mary, Ms. Mary got on together. I don’t know what got wrong with her husband, him and I was getting along, and one morning I got up he had killed all my chickens. Next morning, he got up I done killed all of his. That started a fight, and quite natural when he spread the news it was three or four against me, so I had some what I called bodyguards too, I went and got mine, then after I sees what happened, I went around out the back, I came back, and then just ended up a little shooting straight, and I was sorry, if I’d have been likely to miss now I could have kept firing, I wouldn’t have paid it no mind.
My wife left then, and went over to her sister to stay. Then I stayed there and I hired the police to be there at night because back then it was crosses. I don’t know if you know what a cross is, red pieces all around, and you burn it with … you write your name in there. I don’t know whether they put it out, or leave them but you’d see your name calling. Different names. He’d say “If I catch the little negro over here with my kids, over the line, I’ll kill him.” Next morning, I burned a cross too, and said the same thing. At last, one day, started by the chickens and he run in and got his gun or he already had it, anyway, I knew he fired first. Then I broke in the house and got my gun and I was just lucky, because I tickled him a time or two and then I moved, just give him a place to wait in.
Went up 1718 8th avenue and bought another big home, a nice home, and another one at Stovall Alley. Then I had bought two lots out on [Metis Hill off the Judge Clay Road] about 2 miles from where I was living and I got one on the express. I had nice financing at that time, and everything paid for and I was doing well.
So, we started, I’m a great checker player. I could show you at home, I’ve got my medal I won from the champ here. To tell the truth, that’s why I was running late this evening. I was in the middle of a checkers game. (laughter)
Chris Strachwitz: I wondered where you disappear to.
Johnie Lewis: Time went by faster than what I thought it would. Get back to the story, we’re almost to the end. It was a crowd of boys which [Walker Bryce and Carter Walker], all of us raised up together. They was working for this white fella down in Buena Vista Georgia. He had a sawmill or planer mill or something, anyway it was a mill and he was always working. He’d take them on a truck. Had a long truck. I saw the crowd standing there. I was working right down from there [Eagle and Phenix] Mill. Cotton mill. And I went to see what was happening. They was all playing checkers.
We all started the betting and I said “Bryce, all of us family peoples.” His aunt is my aunt by marriage. My uncle is his uncle by marriage. That’s just the way we’d go so we always just went for cousins. I didn’t want to bet him, but he just wanted to bet so then I broke him and give him his money back. Then this white fella, he was a great checker player, he come out and he wanted to play. I know down there no white man wants a colored to beat him doing nothing. In that way, I didn’t want to play him. He kept insisting, so I had won about $300-$400 and he asked for it. Just part of it. He didn’t ask for but just $5.
I give him his $5, he thought I wasn’t going to give it to him, he just wanted to get some. And I gave him the five bucks then he showed me a roll of money. He had I bet you about a thousand dollars looked like. Twenties, hundred dollars. He pulled out a big sack about a half foot. He said, “Don’t get smart,” and snatched that money. I snatched it back, by tussling around the wind got the money and blowed it all around. Then he kicked me. Well he first called me a name and kicked me, and I called it back, because with what I had, I didn’t feel that I should take anything, course I didn’t know it was going to cost me all my money and my home. I just … I lost everything. I come here I didn’t have nothing … Then when he, I told him I still wasn’t mad and I was trying to get away. I didn’t see no way of running, I didn’t believe in running, I know I hadn’t did nothing. I just told them “Listen white folks, if you kick me on my face, your feet will catch a cramp, you’ll probably fall and never get up.” By that time he had kicked me and I don’t know, I went crazy. I left him laying there and I went over in Alabama just across the river. They were satisfied until they took out a warrant over there, the police couldn’t come over there and get you.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you shoot him or?
Johnie Lewis: No, he’d had cola bottles stacked up there for the fellas, and I hit him. I didn’t hit him that hard. I don’t know why, he must have been mighty tender in his head boy. Because I didn’t do him like (grunts) like that.
Chris Strachwitz: Did he die?
Johnie Lewis: No, he didn’t die, it paralyzed him for a long time. He jumped up about ye high, so I looked down on him and I started to hit him again because I figured now I might as well kill him now. I’m into it. At that time, his grandson run out with a pistol, he was looking, and he run out “Who’s that hit grandfather.” Now I couldn’t take no chance with him. He was about from me to you gentlemen, and I just throwed the bottle, hit him then I took off. I got across the river. I met Joyce Brooks, he says, “Lewis, Lewis, What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” I told him kicked me on Metis Hill out on the clay road. I knowed a white man that was a big shot, Mr. Cummings. We called him Stuart, and he was very nice to colored people. He liked me very much, so I went to him. He said, “You stay here, you don’t have to worry, nobody gonna come here at you.” But I said “I’m married, I can’t stay here.” So I got on the phone and I called my brother. He was living 3529 South Vernon. Then I left fore day. First I called my son and told him to bring the rifle, shotgun, pistol and all, I say, cause I’m going to fight til I die and if I can get away well I will. So God was with me. I went over in Alabama and caught the bus and that’s the piece that you hear me playing about “Baby please don’t go,” I started to tell everybody I play for my wife. That’s what I was playing when I left.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you call for her later to come up?
Johnie Lewis: I was here a year and ten months two weeks before I sent and got her. She made a visit once or twice, and then I sent and got her and my son and moved here.
Chris Strachwitz: Then you started painting up here?
Johnie Lewis: I was here, I came here Sunday, I went to work Monday. Went to paint with Mr. Braffert. You don’t know, but you probably know what Covey had Mr. Covey’s drug store in South Park. 47th and South Park on the west side of the street. Right on the west side, that’s the first place I…
Chris Strachwitz: I’m just about out of tape…..