- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

OKOLONA, Miss. (AP) - A creative force has returned to Northeast Mississippi, where his ideas are swirling around and building momentum.

During his last stay in the region, Charles “Wsir” Johnson became part of Tupelo’s permanent record.

“My name is on the back of the Tupelo CVB blues marker,” Johnson said. “I told my son, ‘That’s my 10 minutes of fame for the next 500 years.’”

He was included because of his 2004 documentary, “Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood,” which focused on Shake Rag, a long-gone, African-American community in Tupelo, and its possible impact on Elvis Presley’s music.

He also was known for encouraging young and old to play African drums, and he traveled around the state investigating African-American history for his newspaper, Mississippi Drum.



“The thing is, I’m not shy,” he said. “I will talk to anybody and everybody.”

Johnson and his family left for North Carolina more than a decade ago, and then he moved to Southern California. Wherever he went, he carried a bit of Mississippi with him.

In North Carolina, he made diddley bows, one-string guitars that led to the development of the blues. In Southern California, he wrote stories about characters in Mississippi.

“All of these ideas were coming from here,” the 64-year-old said.

About eight months ago, he was at a crossroads, and a friend asked a simple question.

“He said, ‘Where were you the most creative?’” Johnson said.

After his father died, there were no longer any ties holding him to the West Coast. He also suffered a tragedy in November, when his son, Sandile, died in an accident in South Africa.

“When my kids went to South Africa, that was five years ago,” he said. “I said I wouldn’t cut my hair until I saw all my kids. One of my kids passed away. I’m not going to cut my hair.”

The time was right for a change, so, in January, Johnson tucked his dreadlocks under a hat, packed his stuff and hit the road.

“I drove this old, raggedy, 192,000-mile car across the country,” he said.

He landed in Okolona, where he got a good deal on an affordable apartment, and he’s been slowly reconnecting with old collaborators and dreaming up new ways to funnel his energy.

His plans include building musical instruments, making pottery, working on a couple of documentaries and taking an interest in Okolona’s African-American history.

“There are these black churches here that are 140 years old. One church, their records are locked up in a vault,” he said. “How can I get some of these churches to get copies of their histories in the library in Okolona and into the Department of Archives and History in Jackson? I asked this guy, ‘If your church burned down, what would happen to those records?’”

During his last stint in Mississippi, Johnson learned about single-stringed diddley bows and their impact on the blues. He shared what he learned as he traveled. “At festivals, I taught kids to play these,” he said, “and I made probably 500 of them. That’s what I did. I was trying to bring the history of Mississippi with me.”

His apartment in downtown Okolona is slowly developing into an exhibition titled “From Africa to the Blues.” He’s stepped away from the drums to focus on other instruments, including the bolon, an African harp, and the kalimba, a finger piano. He’s also making banjos out of gourds and composing his own music.

“The thing was to teach kids, which I thought I would do in the summer here, just as a volunteer,” he said. “My thing is with kids, if I can show you how to make a one-string instrument, I can teach you to make two. If I can get them to make two, I can get them to make four. If you can make four, you’re on your way to six, and you’re on your way to becoming a luthier.”

Some of Johnson’s ceramic pieces are for sale at Mugs on Main in Okolona. He doesn’t have access to a kiln to fire more pottery, but the search will continue, because he said working with clay is particularly satisfying.

“If I make a bowl, I’m not going to eat out of anybody else’s bowl. I’ll use my bowl,” he said. “I’m going to put my pencils in a bowl I made. That’s how I am.”

On another front, he’s been having internet conversations with a researcher in Israel. The two are curious about schoolyard hand-clapping games, such as “Patty Cake” and “Miss Mary Mack.”

“One time, this girl said she couldn’t play the drums. I said, ‘Do you know how to play hand games?’ I said, ‘Play it on the drums,’ and she did. It was great,” he said. “Girls get short-changed on the drums.”

In addition to the hand-clapping documentary, he’s been diving into a Tupelo court case from the 1980s, when people were arrested for putting a voodoo death hex on a judge. There was no trial, because the defendants took plea deals.

“You want to know more, right?” he said. “I have the documents from the courthouse.”

Johnson’s only been in Mississippi for about three months, and the ideas are popping all over the place. His return has resulted in a whirlwind of activity.

“So you understand why I came back,” he said.

And when he needs a break from his projects and plans, Johnson enjoys the benefits of small-town life.

“In Okolona, people say, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’” he said. “You miss that.”

Johnson used to be focused on drums, but now he’s fascinated by making and playing stringed instruments, like this bolon, an African harp. Sample some of his music at www.reverbnation.com/udongo.

In the evenings, Johnson often can be found sitting on a bench in front of his apartment building, where he plays harmonica with his neighbor, 31-year-old Chas Green.

“He’s showing me how to play different songs,” Green said, “and I’m learning about the other instruments he has.”

“I need brothers like this,” Johnson said. “I can sit out here and talk with him about music, films, ceramics, whatever.”

For Johnson, art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in Mississippi.

“It’s all about creativity, because I can’t think about nothing else,” he said. “Art is my biggest thing. I’m not going to be a sign-holding, picketing guy, but I can do art. I can do art to make changes.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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