johnniebillingtonHe was a master blues musician who dedicated his life to teaching children the music of the Delta. His inspiration led directly to the formation of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program.

When I first came to Clarksdale in 1991 Mr. Johnnie took me under his wing and through several years of instruction he alternately fostered, cajoled and then finally tricked me into learning blues keyboard (I had originally asked him to learn guitar!)
My blues career died a decade later after a tenure with the Wesley Jefferson Band and a long stint with Tater the Music Maker.  But Mr. Johnnie endowed me with a life-long commitment to keep important skills and traditions alive through the youngsters of the community.  “If you know something of value,” Mr. Johnnie often taught, “you’d better share it.  Otherwise it will die when you die…”  That simple thought has sustained me through many bumps on the road of working with disadvantaged youth.  Mr. Johnnie’s example led me to form the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program for Mississippi Delta youth to learn the skills of carving canoes and then paddle them on the big river.  The program is all about self-knowledge, leadership, team-skills, and learning to overcome the challenges of becoming adults in a confusing and difficult world.  In Mr. Johnnie words, its all about “helping a boy become a young man, and a girl become a young woman.Mr.Johnnie&students
I am forever grateful to Mr. Johnnie’s unbending ethics and keen sense of leadership.  Its not necessarily the kind of leadership that leads you to fame & fortune, but definitely the kind that leads you to a thoughtful and passionate life.  His lessons were often difficult to accept.  But ultimately they have led me and many others to become better individuals and citizens.
Although he sometimes seemed short on compassion, his never-ending mantra was “Love is what its all about…”  One of his favorite songs to perform was Bobby Blue Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You.”  He often introduced the song specifically for children, addressing the youth in his band or in the audience with the admonition to love and care for your parents.  He named his last homesite, located in Lambert along the meandering Possum Bayou, “The H&H Ranch,” which stands for “Health and Happiness.”

Long live Mr. Johnnie’s teachings!  They surely live on through his his talented apprentices turned professional blues musicians: Arthneice Jones “the Gas Man,” Anthony “Big A” Sherrard, Lee Williams, “Big T” Terry Williams, Billy Gibson, and many, many others. They also live on in unexpected directions like the Mighty Quapaws.

In honor and respect of Mr. Johnnie, may his gift of Health and Happiness reach you wherever you are!

John Ruskey
Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
Vol 9 No 5
1 May 2013

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