Archives for the month of: March, 2022

I declared my feelings for Johnny to Johnny on August 25th and he visited me overnight for the first time on the 28th. Shortly after that he announced that he had the entire upcoming Labor Day weekend free and that he could spend it with me.

I didn’t know then how rare it was for Johnny to have a free weekend, one with no lessons, no studio sessions, no gigs, no rehearsals, but I was excited to have more time with him, a couple of nights with no travel in sight, no early morning departures. I didn’t think to check with my elderly mother and my younger brother about Johnny’s impending visit: I was in my mid-fifties, felt I was in charge of my own social life, saw no need to say anything other than “Johnny’s coming over.” I had told my Mom previously that Johnny and I had known each other for a couple of years at the ballad group.

Johnny and I made a plan to meet in Berkeley to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the California Theater. Then he would come home with me, stay the night. He would go home briefly on Saturday before meeting me again at a Saturday afternoon singing session in Albany. Then we would attend a birthday party for one of Johnny’s friends in the Berkeley hills and go back to my house again.

I remember standing outside the California waiting for Johnny. I remember buying a yogurt from the nearby deli and eating it before the movie so that I wouldn’t spend money on expensive movie snacks. I finally spotted Johnny on the far side of Shattuck Avenue, wearing his trademark black leather jacket and carrying a guitar.

We bought our tickets separately and Johnny stopped at the concession stand for a hot dog and a cup of coffee. I asked him where he wanted to sit and held his coffee while he arranged his gear in the aisle.

Then we watched the film, which focused on the relationship between a little girl and her dying father. They yell and scream at each other and push each other away. He drinks and tells her again and again she is not allowed to cry. Parts of the movie pained me to watch and Johnny laughed at lines I didn’t think were funny. For all that, it was a good film, a film that made me think and feel (I later learned that it was based on a novel by Doris Betts, whose novels I generally enjoy, but I have yet to track it down and read it).

Gathering up our stuff and walking to the nearest bus stop, Johnny and I continued a silly tradition based on a New Yorker cartoon he told me about: in the panel a young woman holds up a batch of envelopes. The caption reads, “Darling, our first bills!” As we walked, we declared, “Darling, our first movie.” “Darling, our first bus ride together.”

When Johnny and I arrived in Kensington, I fed him whatever leftovers we had at the house and he and I retired to my bedroom to talk and cuddle. We stayed up almost all night again, spending a lot of the time telling each other stories. We got up early enough for him to have coffee and scrambled eggs with peppers and cheese. We sat in the breakfast room holding hands whenever we put down our forks, gazing at each other across the table. He sang to me in the kitchen again and I walked him to the bus stop and waited until his bus came. We kissed goodbye, but would see each other that afternoon.

Johnny showed up at the singing session that was utterly new to him, sat down next to me and proceeded to charm the room. He played “our song,” Allen Toussaint’s “New Love Thing,” getting everyone to sing along. He played “Dark End of the Street” for me to sing lead. As the session broke up our hostess offered to drive us to our next destination.

I knew no one at the party, but agreed to go because Johnny wanted to introduce me to some people. We entered a two-story house in the hills. A glorious buffet featured salmon, salad, savory pastries and cheeses. We were directed to the deck to get drinks: Johnny started with red wine and I drank sparkling water.

I remember loading up a plate and finding a seat in the living room. Johnny and I were trading on the story of how we met. I remember sitting next to a woman older than I, who told me the story of the last time she had fallen in love and how she didn’t regret a moment of it. Johnny sat listening, laughing, occasionally interjecting something and introducing me to people. John McCord and Lyuba came in — I knew them from Down Home Music in El Cerrito where I had bought many records. Johnny introduced me to Chris Strachwitz, who started the whole shebang, and to the filmmaker Les Blank, who looked ill and tired.

We bummed a ride home from John McCord and spent our second consecutive night together, about which I remember nothing. I’m sure that we talked, told each other more stories, held each other, kissed and cuddled. We may have stayed up until the light appeared in the morning sky, for we did that many a night in the early days. After some weeks, we became so tired that we slept at least three or four hours: it made me happy when Johnny slept because it was rare for him to get enough sleep.

After that second night, my Mom suggested that we might want to go out for breakfast so we strolled down to Inn Kensington for our next meal. After the third night, my mother smiled at Johnny and took his hand and read me the riot act the moment the door closed behind him.

“I am uncomfortable in my own house,” she said. “You are behaving just like Kevin.”

My deceased older brother had lived in a small downstairs room with an outside entrance and brought girlfriends to the house when he had them. Both of us were serial monogamists. My mother had not objected to previous boyfriends of mine or their visits.

I explained that Johnny usually taught or rehearsed or gigged on weekends and that we had seized a rare opportunity to spend the long weekend together. She didn’t care about that.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, cutting to the chase.

“I don’t want him here consecutive nights,” she said. “And he can’t be here the night before Christmas or the night before Thanksgiving.”

I conveyed the new rules to Johnny on the phone. While I lived in my mother’s house I had to follow whatever rules she made. Accepting such restrictions in my fifties felt odd and lent resonance to a Karla Bonoff song that Johnny liked me to sing: “I never really was a bad girl, but you got me in trouble again.”


After three nights of long phone conversations, Johnny called me early the next morning, leaving me the message to call him if I had a minute.

I called. “I have a minute,” I said, “Or two or three, but then I have jury duty in Richmond. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to hear your voice. I need to see you. I think I can come tonight if I can move a student.”

Johnny taught guitar lessons in his living room.

“What happened to ‘We’ve got time’? Can we decide this later? I’ve got to go.”

I felt bad about cutting our conversation short, but I couldn’t be late to court. I grabbed a lunch and hopped on the first bus. If I got put on a jury at least I’d have jury duty pay to add to my income.

I did not get put on a jury. I went home and resumed correspondence with Johnny by email. I told him if he decided to come over we had options, that we had rooms in the house where either of us could sleep if we wanted to get some sleep and he wouldn’t have to make the long journey home in the middle of the night (Neither Johnny nor I drove: I relied on buses and BART, while he took combinations of buses, trains and cabs and sometimes hired drivers for gigs).

I gave Johnny bus directions to get to my house and planned a dinner for us to eat. I decided to sit outside in the front yard so that I could meet him when he came and bring him into the house where I lived with my mother and brother. I asked him to bring a robe or something to maintain modesty in our upstairs hallway.

Johnny missed a bus and arrived close to sunset, wearing a black leather jacket and carrying an acoustic guitar and a satchel. He bent down to kiss me and I smelled beer on his breath. In my world, you brush your teeth before a date. In what kind of world do you have a drink before visiting your girlfriend?

I introduced Johnny to my mother and brother, then got us some food. We sat in the small breakfast room where my family usually dines to eat, adjourning to my upstairs room after taking our plates to the kitchen.

Johnny hung his jacket over the back of my desk chair and sat down his satchel and his guitar. He drew a short robe from his bag and I hung it on a hook in my closet.

I lit candles and put some music on my computer. At some point I excused myself, went to the bathroom and changed into a robe. Johnny wanted more light than the candles provided so I turned on my closet light, turned off the overhead light and got into my side of the bed.

Johnny sat to remove his shoes and socks and then stood to remove his black jeans. He came to bed wearing only his black shirt, habitually rolled above the elbows to expose his muscular forearms. We rolled toward each other and nestled together, my head on his chest, his arm around my shoulders. I could hear his beating heart.

We cuddled and talked most of the night, joined cautiously by my cat, Fiona, who was at first spooked by Johnny’s height and his big feet (from a cat’s perspective). Once Johnny lay down, Fiona crept up to investigate him and made friends rather quickly when she discovered he was warm.

To keep my family comfortable, I made strict rules for appearances outside my bedroom: for trips to the adjoining bathroom we needed to be clothed and to appear in the public rooms of the house we needed to be completely dressed: shirt, shoes, etc. When we were in my room I played music on my computer to create a sound-screen for our conversation.

Alas, Johnny’s Labor Day visit blew away any good will I had garnered with these strategies…

Another weekend I followed Johnny up to a north bay folk festival to hear him play, tagging along with Marlene, who was going. I made a Greek salad for the potluck dinner and baked a big apple pie. I wore a plunging halter top, an art deco rhodium-plated necklace that had belonged to my paternal grandmother and my habitual black jeans. I brought my guitar, hoping to get a chance to play a couple of new songs for Johnny in the evening sing-around that followed the concert performances.

After singing a gospel-inflected song and a political piece, Johnny said “We’ve been talking about spiritual things, but now it’s time to talk about the carnal, y’all…” He went on for awhile and I have always wished I had a recording of that introduction to his rocker “Burnin’ Up.” The crowd danced and smiled.

When Johnny came off stage I came to say hello to him before returning to my seat at the edge of the stairs. He sat in a chair behind me for a bit, nudging me and poking me like a schoolboy with a forbidden crush on a girl while I bantered with him, saying things like “It’s too bad you don’t know any nice people.”

“I know, darlin’,” he said, shaking his head. “But I got you, babe,” he added, putting his arm around me for a minute.

I had had misgivings about Johnny after attending a previous gig of his. I was singing back-up for him on a tribute to Woody Guthrie as part of a group he called the Hard Times Choir. The event manager had offered every musician two drink tickets for beer or wine. I didn’t plan to use mine. Johnny came to me after he had drunk his two beers.

“They only give you tickets for two beers,” he said. “Would you buy beer for me?”

“I don’t think I could do that,” I said, not wanting to break the rules, thinking two beers should be enough for anyone, not wanting to procure alcohol.

“It’s not a problem,” he said, going off to ask someone else.

That request was my first indication of Johnny’s thirst, his capacity and his willingness to bend the rules to get what he wanted. Trying to avoid heartbreak, I had gone home and written a song called “The Werewolf” about the fear I had felt growing up in an alcoholic family. In the song after describing the atmosphere around my father, my older brother and my sister-in-law, the breath-holding and the scenes, I address Johnny directly:

And then there’s you, I like you a lot.
I dream of sharing everything we’ve got.
Don’t know you so well that I’d know for sure
If that old werewolf is knocking at your door.

There is no room in a heart to share
If you’ve got a werewolf already living there.
I’d give you my love, but it won’t get through —
The werewolf will get it, and then he’ll turn on you.

Just a story, just a song,
Just between friends while we’re getting along,
Just one thing that you should know:
If I see the werewolf, then I have to go.

At the Cur-Ville Festival, I saw Johnny drinking prodigiously, filling cup after cup from a keg on the porch, but remaining lucid, jovial, funny, steady on his feet. And everyone I talked with loved Johnny: they told me he was a great guy, generous, how helpful and encouraging he had been to them, what a good friend.

Mid-afternoon, Johnny gathered together “the ballad gals” and his friend Reid, who was visiting, for an impromptu round of singing on the porch. I got my friend Mary to sing “Peggy Gordon,” a song she owns, in my opinion. For the first time ever, Johnny took a harmony on the chorus, rather than simply listening. I sang “Poor Lazarus,” a blues ballad about an outlaw — Johnny would know — he always kept a record of what people sang. Reid sang a song about falling over drunk.

We would have continued to sing in our small group, but some of the other musicians were anxious to start a song circle and asked us to join them. I got out my guitar, planning to sing “The Werewolf” or “Ingenue,” which I had written about falling in love with Johnny, but it was not to be. Every time I got ready to open my mouth and strike my chord some other gal with a guitar would launch into an original song. Johnny and Marlene did a duet on the hilarious “Third Rate Romance,” which I had never heard before, before Johnny left the circle, crossed the yard and began playing duets with Beth, a striking woman with big blue eyes and waist-length brown hair that I had seen with him at the Woody Guthrie gig. I watched them from afar.

When Marlene signaled that she’d like to go, I collected my dishes from the potluck table and told her I’d be just a minute. I walked over to Johnny to say goodbye and a bystander asked who I was.

“This is the fabulous Sharyn,” Johnny said with a smile.

“The fabulous Sharyn,” brown-haired Beth echoed softly, trying it on and raising her eyebrows. I bade Johnny goodbye and turned to leave with Marlene and Reid, helping pilot us all back to the East Bay by way of Petaluma.

* * *

When ballad group came around the next month I brought my guitar and got there early. Johnny arrived early as well. Looking at the clock, I asked the hostess if I could play an illegal song before the meeting started at two o’clock, in about ten minutes.

“Yes,” said Johnny. The others nodded.

“Sweet song or scary song?”

“Sweet song first,” Johnny said, always ready to lead.

I sang “Ingenue,” a song about the experience of falling in love, watching my thoughts, moving helplessly under love’s spell. It ends, “But my heart is singing like an ingenue/Singing and falling, falling for you.”

Johnny enthused over “Ingenue.”

“I could hear Bonnie Raitt doing that song.”

“That would be great,” I said, “As long as she doesn’t mess it up.”

“Now, play the scary song,” he said.

I glanced at the clock again.

“Go ahead,” said the hostess.

So I sang “The Werewolf” before we switched to the traditional ballads we had come to sing. I don’t remember what else happened that day, but tall, long-legged Mr. Harper offered to walk me back to BART.

“I’m slow,” I said, being more than a foot shorter than he was, carrying a heavy guitar case and walking with a limp.

“That’s fine,” he said.

We walked the seven or eight blocks saying little of consequence.

Johnny told me later that when I sang “Ingenue” he had the thought that I must be falling in love with someone and a twinge of regret that the song wasn’t about him. He also registered the desire to kiss me for the first time.

I felt no hint of this in the BART station as we paid for our tickets and descended the stairs to the single platform. We stood together, waiting for the trains that would take us in opposite directions. He looked down at me and said, “You’re a captivating singer. That song … well, both songs.”

I looked up into his light eyes and said, “I had good inspiration for those songs.”

He nodded.

I drew a deep breath.

“You know those songs are about you, right?”

“No, I did not know that. ‘The Werewolf,’ too? I need to hear those songs again.”

Just then my train pulled alongside the platform.

“That’s my train,” I said.

“I might call you,” he said, as the doors opened and I stepped through them.

That day on the BART platform was the day I got on the Johnny Harper train. It arrived with a chance meeting, a couple of songs and then I was gone, over the moon, madly in love. He fell hard in love with me, too. We began talking on the phone that evening, spending hours talking like love-struck teenagers.

Johnny said he didn’t want a casual relationship, only a serious one. My heart leapt at those words. We began to pledge ourselves to each other over the next three nights of phone conversations.

One night while conducting our relationship entirely on the phone, I said, “Sing me a lullaby.”

He hesitated.

“There will be no firing squad,” I said, “Just sing me something.”

I know I ought to remember what that first lullaby was. I don’t. Johnny would have known. He probably kept a list somewhere. From that night on, it became a tradition for Johnny to sing me a lullaby every night that we were not together in person.

I met Johnny fairly late in the game. He had jettisoned a marriage and a band. When we met, I was fifty-one and he was sixty-three. In 2009 our mutual friend Marlene McCall brought him to a monthly session I had started where we sang traditional ballads at a home in Berkeley. This man that I had never seen before walked in one day, parked his Marshall amp next to an electrical outlet and told me “Move over, darlin’,” usurping my customary place at the foot of the table. I was not primed to like him, neither his electric guitar nor his take-charge attitude. I grudgingly shifted my chair over about a foot, maintaining a semblance of my space.

But when the session started I saw how he listened to the singing, his expression rapt, following every nuance, every ornament of the long Scottish and American ballads we sing. I saw his eyes riveted on each singer’s face, his right hand scribbling singers’ names and song titles on white paper that he kept in the breast pocket of his long-sleeved black dress shirt.

I fell in love with Johnny’s versions of blues ballads: “Frankie and Albert,” “Stagolee” and “St. James Infirmary.” I got used to his long introductions (The man liked to talk…). Gradually, over two years, after one incident where he flirted with me for a minute, I began to fall for the man himself. I contrived to be places he might be. I missed him when he wasn’t at a Ballads session — he was prone to disappear every once in while for a month or two.

In July 2012, just back from a meditation retreat, I decided to email Johnny about getting together to swap songs. I paid out a lot of rope, saying I didn’t know how busy he was or if he would be interested. I offered to invite Marlene so that we would have the possibility of singing three-part harmony.

He called me up, we jostled schedules for a week or so, and then fixed a date. I would go out to meet him at his house in San Leandro. I remember fussing about what to wear on the warm Saturday afternoon.

After taking a bus, a BART train and a moderately long walk, I arrived sweating slightly. I walked into his living room, furnished with a couple of oak chairs, a worn blue love seat, a cheap oblong table and three entire walls of record albums, CDs and music books. His red Telecaster and vintage 00018 Martin waited on their music stands.

Johnny did not offer me refreshments. Instead, he directed me to lay my guitar case across the oak chairs and unpack. He sat in a black padded folding chair near his teaching table, a beer at his right hand, plugged in, tuned up.

Early on he sang me Allen Toussaint’s “New Love Thing,” which would become our song: “I lost my job and I don’t care — I got me a new love thing.”

When he finished playing that one, I said “Tell me you didn’t write that song.”
“I like that song,” he said.
“I like it, too, but it is a catalog of disasters. You’re inviting misery.”

He told me I didn’t understand, that in New Orleans where Toussaint lived, people celebrated every good thing even if they lost their jobs, wrecked their cars, etc.

Our music exchanges were less than stellar. Johnny assumed that we would play everything together, jam; I thought we would take turns singing solo. Since breaking my left hand in two places in 2006 I haven’t had much stamina for playing in first position, which tires my damaged hand. I usually play capoed up to 5th or 7th fret. It is not easy for me to play with others: I can’t just watch their left hands for the chords, or play the chords as they are called because I am fingering the songs in whole different keys and have to transpose on the fly. Johnny could have played along with anything I played, but I don’t remember that he did. He accepted my wish to trade songs instead. He sang me an original song, “Work With What You Got,” rich in rhythm and groove and light on melody. He sang me a Buck Owens tune. I sang him love songs: Si Kahn’s “Queen of the Cowboy Cafe” and Kevin Welch’s “Something ‘Bout You.”

I didn’t see anything of Johnny’s house that day other than the living room and the bathroom. I remember a ragged deep pink towel hanging on a towel rack. Johnny took my empty water bottle and refilled it from the kitchen, bringing it back to me.

As the afternoon wore on I found myself hoping Johnny would suggest having dinner. He didn’t. I left his house thinking, “I want to sleep with him, but I don’t want to clean his house.” I bought a Drumstick from a passing ice cream truck to tide me over until I could arrive home on the last bus.

As it happened, the Ballad group met the next day. Johnny settled into his chair next to me and I said, “Guess which song I can’t get out of my head?”
“Work With What You Got,” he replied promptly.
“You’d like that,” I said, “But it’s ‘Got Me a New Love Thing.’”