A Honky-Tonk Cannonball Chugs Up From the Delta
A Day on the Rails With Gulf Coast Performers Is Hardly a Quiet Affair

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.

While the other musicians gather around him, Super Chikan shows off other guitars he'd made from a cigar box and the round center of a ceiling fan.

"We always been poor people and we didn't throw away nothin'," he explains. "We did recycling before we knew what recycling was."

These days, Super Chikan, 55, paints tractors and cars on his homemade guitars and sells them as folk art for several thousand dollars apiece.

Now he starts playing the ceiling-fan guitar. "Don't you shoot my rooster," he sings, "cause it crows better than it usta."

Then, as if to prove his point, he starts singing in a dialect of chicken: Buk buk buk buk buk buk.

Soon, Garth Ross -- the cat herder from the Kennedy Center who is running this trip -- calls everybody to lunch in the dining car.

When the waitress reaches his table, Super Chikan orders a chicken sandwich. When it arrives, he takes a bite and chews it, looking a bit quizzical.

"In your expert opinion, Super Chikan," he is asked, "how's the chicken sandwich?"

"Not so super," he says, sadly.

Lunch seems to revive the guys from Grupo Fantasma. Back in their seats, they start beating out rhythms on drums, drum cases, cowbells and the arms of their chairs. They get a groove going and a guitarist and a fiddle player join in. Soon, the Grupo guys are singing in Spanish and the dancers from Tulane are boogieing in the aisles.

When the train pulls into Birmingham, everybody scrambles outside to watch Feufollet, a Cajun band from Lafayette, La. As the band sings a fiddle tune in French, the Tulane dancers bound off the train, spinning, strutting and waving their arms. When one female dancer tumbles to the ground, a train conductor hustles over to help her up, but she rolls gracefully back onto her feet and keeps dancing.

Apparently, Amtrak conductors are not fully trained in avant-garde dance appreciation.

Everybody hops back on board and the train chugs off toward Atlanta.

By now it's late afternoon and the performers are getting thirsty. Fortunately, there's a big Styrofoam cooler in the back of the performers' car, and it's packed with bottles of Abita beer and a half-gallon of rum. It's a gift from the Kennedy Center folks, who plan to serve after Atlanta, where the last platform performance will take place. But Atlanta is hours away and the musicians are thirsty now and somebody cracks open a beer, which inspires somebody else to crack open a beer and . . . it's party time!

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," Super Chikan sings.

"That's my state song -- the Louisiana state song!" says Vic Shepherd, who plays the music for his wife's Calliope Puppets theater company. He starts to sing along: "You make me happy when skies are gray."

Super Chikan plays the chorus on his cigar-box guitar, closing his eyes and biting his lower lip with his shiny gold teeth while Shepherd harmonizes on harmonica.

When they finish, Super Chikan announces that he's going to sing some nursery rhymes. And he does, but his versions are a tad lustier than the originals. Who knew that Goldilocks, Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Old MacDonald and Old Mother Hubbard carried on with such uninhibited erotic abandon?

Things are getting rowdy here in the performers' car. But elsewhere on the train, all is quiet.

In the cafe car, artist Rowena Bowman of Kiln, Miss., is putting the finishing touches on a construction-paper collage that depicts the flooding she saw during Hurricane Katrina, which dropped a tree inches from her front door.

In the sleeper car, Irving Banister, 40, a New Orleans garbageman, sews beads on a piece of cloth. He's a member of the legendary Wild Magnolias, a group of "Indians" who march in the Mardi Gras parade in gloriously garish costumes. The cloth he's sewing will one day become part of his costume, which already includes a huge headdress made of white ostrich feathers and a beaded "apron" depicting an Indian brave shooting a buffalo. On the apron he's sewing now, an eagle soars past a setting sun.

"The Wild Magnolias have taken the apron to a whole 'nother level," he says proudly.

While Banister sews his setting sun, the sun is setting over Georgia, throwing long, soft shadows over a junkyard and a field dotted with horses and a house covered by kudzu and a store with a sign that says "Full Service Gun Shop."

When the train pulls into Atlanta, it's dark outside and a dim light bulb struggles to illuminate the Amtrak platform. As the performers step off the train, the light goes out. Then it comes back on again.

The Wild Magnolias bound across the platform, banging tambourines and singing "Iko Iko." Banister is in his costume, which contains more feathers than all the showgirls in Vegas combined. The light goes out. Then it pops on again.

The Magnolias climb back on the train. Ross introduces Super Chikan, who starts singing, surrounded by the Tulane dancers, who spin and twirl and kick.

The light goes out. Then it pops back on.

Super Chikan launches into a second song, a lyrical little ditty about tin-roof shacks:

It's lonesome in the country but sometimes I like to go back

And listen to the raindrops falling on my tin-top shack

Then, just when you think Super Chikan has gone all sentimental on you, he sings the next line:

While I'm laying on the floor picking pimples off Bertha's back.

The audience on the platform laughs. The dancers dance. The light goes off, then pops back on. Everybody climbs aboard and the train rolls on into the night.

But there's a problem: The beer's all gone. Fortunately, there's a solution: the half-gallon of rum. Par- tay!

The train chugs into South Carolina. The performers chug rum. When the rum runs out, they resort to dire measures: They start buying booze at the cafe car.

By now, they've been joined by Julie McCollum, 40, an Alabama electrician who's going to New Jersey to take care of her sick mother. She heard the music and joined the party.

"I called my mother and said, 'I'm having a ball with all the musicians on this train,' " McCollum says. "And she said, 'You're not supposed to have a ball, you're supposed to come home to me.' "

McCollum dances in the aisles as the musicians jam. She estimates Super Chikan's age at 42, which inspires him to kiss her hand and offer to marry her. She reveals how she got her two black eyes: She was playing with her pooch, a big old sheepdog, and it ran between her legs and knocked her over.

"A man's more of a dog than a dog," Super Chikan tells her. "But I'm more of a rooster than a dog."

"Well, cock-a-doodle-doo to you," she says.

By now, it's nearly midnight. A couple of guitarists get a groove going and Super Chikan starts beating on a drum box and improvising verse after verse of a blues song, the themes of which are roosters, chickens, monkeys, his mojo, a caveman with a bone in his hand, and the general desirability of getting funky.

One guy joins in on flute. Another joins in on trombone, another on sax. Super Chikan keeps singing. McCollum keeps dancing. And a splendid time is had by all -- except for Gary Ray Fernandez, one of the Tulane dancers, who happens to be a medical student. He eschews the party and heads for a quiet car where he can study for an exam by reading his anatomy notes and watching a DVD of a human dissection.

In the morning, Super Chikan sits in the dining car eating breakfast. "I've got a too-much-fun headache," he says.

But it doesn't last long. An hour later, he's back in the performers' car, singing a song about his "mojo hand" and its allegedly amazing ability to make women "scream and shout."

The train rolls into Washington's Union Station at 11:20 a.m., which is only an hour and a half late.

Ross lines the performers up behind the Wild Magnolias, who are arrayed in full costume. Then they march through the station, while Feufollet's fiddlers play a cheery tune.

The people waiting for trains stare, looking dumbfounded in their power suits, clutching their newspapers and their power briefcases.

Super Chikan bursts out laughing. "This is fun !" he says. "These people lookin' like, 'What in the world is going on?' "

For a schedule of events at the Kennedy Center Open House Arts Festival, visit http://www.kennedy-center.org .

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