Although he played guitar and sang, Johnnie Billington was best known as a teacher with the Delta Blues Education Program. He was born in Crowder, in Quitman County, Mississippi, in 1935, and as a young man he listened regularly to the King Biscuit Time radio program, broadcast on KFFA out of Helena, Arkansas. The show exposed Billington to blues music performed by Aleck Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II), Joe “Pinetop” Perkins, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and others. At age nine, Billington received a guitar from his father and began learning the blues. He made his first semiprofessional music money playing as a solo act for a juke joint. He briefly moved to Arizona before heading north to Chicago, where he performed with Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, and others for more than twenty years.
Billington moved back to Mississippi in 1977 and set up shop as an auto mechanic in Clarksdale. He soon discovered his passion for teaching. Encouraged by the generosity James and Waters had shown him by allowing him up onto stage with them, Billington wanted to inspire and teach the youth of the Mississippi Delta. He taught hundreds of children to play the blues and to appreciate the Delta’s cultural heritage. For students without an aptitude for music, Billington taught auto repair. As the number of students seeking his guidance grew, “Mr. Johnnie,” as they affectionately called him, moved from teaching out of his home to holding classes at Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum; he also conducted workshops in Florida and Massachusetts.
In 1992 Billington helped create the Delta Blues Education Program to “bring together the children and master musicians of the Mississippi Delta for the continuation of the Delta Blues tradition.” His student group, usually known as Johnnie Billington’s Kids, performed at blues festivals around the state. Among his students who have gone on to form their own blues bands are Arthniece “Gas Man” Jones and the Stone Gas Band. Billington’s efforts earned him awards from several blues organizations as well as the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1999. Until his death in 2013 he performed with his group, J. B. and the Midnighters, though his work appeared on only a few sound recordings. He saw his mission as more than a means of teaching children, including seven of his own, to play music: he sought to instill good values and inspire hope.
- Delta Blues Education Program website, www.bluesed.org
- Edward Komara, in Encyclopedia of the Blues, ed. Edward Komara (2006)
- Mississippi Folklife and Folk Artist Directory website, http://www.arts.state.ms.us/folklife/
- Leonard Watkins, Blues and Rhythm (April 1996)