A Honky-Tonk Cannonball Chugs Up From the Delta

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Somewhere in South Carolina, sometime after the rum ran out, which was about 15 hours into the Kennedy Center's 27-hour New Orleans-to-Washington Whistle Stop Tour, two Cajun fiddlers played a jaunty tune while James "Super Chikan" Johnson sang a delightfully dirty blues song, and a lady from Alabama with two black eyes and a beer bottle in her hand told one of the Mardi Gras Indians that she'd trade her sleeveless white blouse for his T-shirt, which depicted comedian Redd Foxx counting a huge wad of money.

The Mardi Gras Indian declined the offer. But the lady with two black eyes refused to give up.

"He's gonna give me his shirt before the night is over," she vowed between swigs of Bud, "or I'm gonna rip it off his back."

But we're getting ahead of the story. Let's stop and back up, which, incidentally, the train did a few times along its epic 1,152-mile journey.

The idea of the Whistle Stop Tour was to promote the Kennedy Center's 22nd annual Open House Arts Festival -- which will be held today from noon to 7 p.m., with musicians from the Gulf Coast, plus Nanci Griffith, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, all of it free. So the Kennedy Center teamed up with Amtrak to transport 43 musicians, dancers and other artists from New Orleans, stopping off to perform at Amtrak stations along the way.

It all begins at 6:05 Thursday morning in the New Orleans train depot, where a Texas band called Grupo Fantasma launches into a fiery Latin number that wakes up a bunch of sleepy folks waiting for trains. It also rouses at least one cockroach, which scurries across the station floor toward the Tulane students of the PearsonWidrig DanceTheater, who are engaged in the first of their endless stretching exercises.

A few minutes later, the artists pile into the last car of Amtrak's Crescent train while the other passengers take seats in other cars. Musicians tend not to be morning people, and most of them immediately pass out, sprawling across seats like the victims of some hideous mass murder.

Shortly before noon, the train stops at Meridian, Miss., where Delta blues singer Johnson is waiting on the platform with his guitar, which he made out of a five-gallon gasoline can.

Except for his bass player, who is known as Daddy Rich, Super Chikan is pretty much alone out there on the platform -- apparently Meridian is not a thriving rail center -- but the musicians climb off the train to hear him play.

"My papa went to jail and Mr. Charlie raised hell," Super Chikan sings. "We had to work all summer just to pay my papa's bail."

Dapper from the crown of his black fedora to the soles of his black-and-white alligator shoes, Super Chikan grew up in Clarksdale, Miss., the home of the blues, where he earned his nickname, he says, for his ability to communicate with chickens.

"I used to listen to what they said and talk to them," he says.

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