Archives for posts with tag: Johnny Harper

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.


Million Dollar Bash: self-portrait with Johnny Harper.

Million Dollar Bash (Self-Portrait with Johnny Harper). 12″ x 12″ watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

While many of the locals were preoccupied with the Worlds’ Series (Yay, Giants!), my sweetie got asked to play a last minute gig for a party in Oakland. Being the gentleman that he is, he asked me along to sing harmony and to wear a red dress that harmonizes nicely with his Telecaster. Saturday found us in someone’s backyard under a white cloth canopy on a temporary stage, setting up mic stands and duct taping the sign on the tip jar. The party was a reunion of sorts for some rescued pit bulls and their owners. One of the pit bulls is named Johnny Justice and we spent a certain amount of time swiveling our heads around whenever we heard people calling “Johnny.”

From where we sat on our stools onstage we could see lit Jack-o-lanterns on small tables, a bar that looked like a tiki shack, guests wearing colorful cowboy hats. A man in a red Western shirt was there to provide square dance music and calls after dark. Folding chairs and picnic tables were scattered about, along with a few hay bales. A small barn held a few of the less social pit bulls.

Bad Boy that he is, Johnny — the man, not the dog — launched into a Dylan tune called “Million Dollar Bash” after playing a few other things. He followed that with a rendition of “Pretty Boy Floyd” by Woody Guthrie, striking his blow for singing about economic justice. Demure little me sang along on both songs and was not above raising my floor length skirt for a moment to flash some leg when the lyrics called for flash. We were not asked to leave, despite such wicked antics, and, in fact, we were encouraged to have a drink and fill a plate after darkness fell. We could have square-danced, too, had we wanted to, but Johnny chose to break down gear instead and deposit the gig check in the bank.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The rich are different from you and me.” People had driven in from Minnesota to attend the soiree. We wondered what the hosts were feeding them and wandered over to the food troughs. What we found were hot dogs and fixings: vegetarian hot dogs, sausages, hot dog buns, squeeze bottles of mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, bins of sauerkraut and dill pickles and red peppers and onions, so, once again, I was dining on a hot dog, this time with barbecue sauce, sauerkraut, red peppers and dill pickles.

The tiki bar held red wine, white wine, tiny bottles of water, warm beer in cans and several mixed drinks made in quantity in large glass jars. One, the Barn Burner, consisted of bourbon, ginger ale and apple cider, while another featured vodka, ginger ale and limes. I drank a virgin lime and ginger onstage and had the real thing later. Johnny gave me a sip of his Barn Burner, a tasty fall drink to be sure. He also gave me a cut of the take from the gig, proving once again what a good guy he is, and giving me the right to say that I get paid to sing, although, as Gillian Welch says in “Everything Is Free,” “We’re gonna do it anyway” — you can’t keep musicians from playing music, but we are really happy when you pay us and feed us to do it.

As luck would have it, we still have turkey hot dogs and sausages in our refrigerator. If hot dogs are good enough for the rich, I guess they are good enough for us to eat, too. The last time I ate hot dogs this frequently was on hot dog day in elementary school. Every Wednesday parents would gather in the auditorium of Kensington Hilltop Elementary School and boil hot dogs, place them in buns, adorn them with ketchup or mustard, or leave them plain and deliver them to each classroom. Or perhaps it was in junior high when I went through a phase of eating a hot dog, a cup of Hawaiian Punch and a package of Hostess chocolate doughnuts for lunch everyday (I survived the diet of my adolescence and your children will too, most likely). We do not, however, keep a bar stocked with vodka and bourbon — I turn vodka into homemade vanilla extract if it crosses my path and no one here drinks bourbon at all — for that, we’ll have to get invited to another private party. And, in case any rich people are listening, I would recommend upgrading the ginger ale to ginger beer — Cock’nBull brand is the best I’ve ever had.