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.’”