The ART of the Blues Interview with Lennie Jones, Folk Art Blues by Maureen Elizabeth

Posted on 4/18/2010 by Maureen Elizabeth

Lennie Jones ( has a storied past. He calls himself a renaissance redneck, a swamp cop who has been shot at and beat with axe handles, a recovering alcoholic, and a self taught artist. My conversation with him was equally fascinating and informative. To understand his artwork, you need to understand, or at least have a sense of, his life. Lennie started playing professionally in 1965 and by the time he was 13 years old he was drinking heavily. “I came from a long line of drunks,” Lennie says, with his southern accent. “My Daddy was a Louisiana drummer who was a big music fan of the blues and old school jazz. So at an early age I was exposed to a lot of blues. By the time I was 13 I was playing the harmonica in clubs – I was way underage- and the owners, back then, would say "I can’t pay you what you’re worth but you can drink all you want.” And so he began a 30 some year destructive relationship with alcohol. In the 60's his own band was pursued by none other than Frank Zappa who wanted to sign them to his newly formed Bizarre record label. "He would come to hear us play a lot and he sent us on tour hoping to sign us. We already had a manger at the time who let us live in the night club - we were the house band - and he got us gigs, equipment and all the dope we could smoke, so we didn’t want to give up our manager." During this time the new Filmore styled Ambassador had opened and was becoming a stopping place for musicians like Zappa. "Since we were really well known around the D.C. area we opened for Canned Heat and I remember thinking “who are these guys?” Then they played Elmore James’ “Dust my Broom” – I mean straight blues - and I grabbed my manger and said ‘you keep telling me we can’t play the blues – just listen to these guys!' They were getting a huge reception and Henry “Sunflower” Vestine just blew me away. He has to be one of the most underrated Caucasian blues guitarists around and Canned Heat really was the authority on blues music at the time. These guys were great guys to meet and not only were they doing it [playing the blues] but they were doing it before I was and doing it well! Now I did all the art for the Telluride Blues Festival, twice – it’s a real honor- and in 2008 Canned Heat performed there, with one founding member “Fito” de la Parra, and I got to go up to him and say ‘Hey, 40 years ago I opened for you’ – it was great. I’m still really into the music but I don’t play professionally any more. I just paint. Playing music for me as a teenager was an outlet and a party. So when I got out of jail at the age of 18 I thought I’d start playing country rock, bluegrass…I learned to play the fiddle thinking that there would be less temptation in that genre – not true! There’s a quote I have on my website “When you let the devil ride, he wanna drive” I’m a recovering alcoholic 30 years now, since the last time I got out of jail, and I am probably the only guy you’ll ever meet who in 40 years went from drinking wine with Frank Zappa, playing at the first march on the Pentagon when Norman Mailer spoke, to standing behind the President of the United States with a rifle and a badge as a federal ranger and spending the last 20 years of life as a swamp cop in the Florida Everglades. It is truly miraculous that my life has changed the way it did.

Maureen: What led you to pick up a paintbrush?

Lennie: I was always interested in art. My mom was a good artist and my dad a cartoonist and let me tell you how art and music can be a salvation for a young kid. I hate seeing all these kids going without music and art in their life. If their home life is good – that is one thing. But if they have trouble and turmoil in their life, music and art can be a salvation. It was an outlet for me. Especially true when I was a kid. I could always draw but when I was federal ranger, 24 hours on call, I had no time to pursue it. So I looked forward not only to the time that I could paint but that time when I could paint what I wanted. Art is a reflection of what I know.

Maureen: What is your inspiration – is it the lyrics, the songs?

Lennie:I think that the life and the hardships that people endure .. I was taught at a young age that poor people eat beans and rice,and they play the blues.. the music really spoke to me. The overpowering rhythm and the lyrics.

Maureen: We had the good fortune of interviewing Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown.

Lennie: He is an artist too!

Maureen: Yes! And we also talked with David Nelson who is an artist as well, both, like you, in their 60's and coming from that interesting place of reflecting back and taking all that wisdom from those lived years – its an amazing time to talk with them – just like you, looking back…

Lennie: I’m still struggling to be a good man , I'm still struggling to learn.

Maureen: So when you do your portraits, how do you develop the image?

Lennie: The original image is in my mind and I’ll find a photo, not necessarily of the same sex, that helps toward visualization and I’ll listen to their music while I paint. I can’t do graphics,or lettering, I don’t have those skills, but when Robert Johnson’s family was opening a museum for their Dad I made a print to celebrate that occasion. Normally, I don’t do prints because I’m supposed to be a folk artist and a print is made on a machine – a print does not have my sweat, blood and flaws in it. You want a piece of your soul within your art. I live in the woods, people come to my house and want the whole story that goes with their art and I have sold to people who have never bought a piece of art in their life – it’s an honor for me…

Maureen: I understand that you gave Buddy Guy a portrait of Muddy Waters…

Lennie: That was incredible I’d been listening to him since 1964 when him and Junior Wells did “Hoodoo Man Blues” – and three different times I was supposed to give this painting to Buddy but it never happened. Finally I met up with him, me with my long white hair, and shook his hand and told him that in 1965 I heard the Chicago Living Blues, well, he’s listening to me now so I unboxed and gave him this portrait of Muddy standing in a cotton field and I had painted the real cotton shed from the plantation – he practically teared up and started talking about how much he misses the old guys and started telling all kind of stories… It was so nice to meet Buddy Guy, not through music, but through art, my own art.

Maureen: You have quite a connection with these blues legends...

Lennie: I painted Bo Diddley’s hands the day he died. I wanted to go to the funeral which was about 4 hours away from where I live but I though they may not let me in there and I loved Bo Diddley so that’s how I paid tribute to him. When you look at the painting it’s my guitar, I didn’t want to do his guitar and make it so recognizable, but those hands are remarkable. His hands on my guitar with my ring. Hands are the essence of a man – I don’t consciously paint hands that are larger than life. The one positive role model I had as a young man was my grandfather, I am named after him and I was blessed to have him in my life, and my grandfather taught me at a really young age to look at a man’s hands, not only see how he shakes your hand , but to look at his hands. If you shake hands with Buddy Guy or if you look at Bo Diddley's hands, they are the exact antithesis of what a guitar players hands should look like – not long slender Jimi Hendrix hands – Bo Diddley's fingers were the fat, broken fingers of a boxer, a guy who worked hard. Hands for me are remarkable things that tell a phenomenal story if you are available to interpret the story. I know the hands I paint are too big in terms of physiology, I hear that all the time.

Maureen: On another level, though, if you see the hands as really conveying the essence of who that person was and how they got to be where they are, or where they were, would their hands not be, essentially, larger than life – because that’s what they hold...

Lennie: Yes! Hands are not only a point of solace and comfort but to look at them as a visual beacon of their life – hands always tell a story – you can’t alter the life that is in your hands.

Maureen: That's beautiful.

Lennie: I spent time with Willie King before he died, I called him the Blues Buddha, and he always liked my artwork. He wanted me to come and help teach young people to play guitar and do posters with the kids. He was a wonderful, recovered, drunk and every Friday he played for free at the old folks home. I participated in a lecture series with musicians and writers -I was the only artist- and I had my paintings displayed. I had one painting covered with a sheet and just as Willie was about to play I gave a talk about him and how he, like others, had lived through extreme prejudice but that he approached racism and lack of understanding with love and not hatred. When he unveiled the painting he was so surprised to see that I had done a portrat of him. When he saw it he just cried, hugged me and said "man, you know you ain't no white man."

Maureen: You really connect with people through your art...

Lennie: Well, I have to tell you a funny story. One day I'm sitting in my studio, painting, and the phone rings. Now I have caller I.D. and on the I.D. it says "Robert Johnson" - really freaked me out! So I answer the phone and I hear "Mister Lennie, I'm Robert Johnson's grandson Stephen." So I told him about the caller I.D. and he laughed and said "my granddaddy come back to get you!" Now this is when they had asked me to participate in the opening of the new museum so I said "You know you will be bringing down a big, ugly white man!" And he said "I know! I can see that! But you sure know how to paint a black man!"

Maureen: John Cohen,a photographer who did some real early work with photos of Dylan, said that "in traditional societies when you get close to the musician,you are close to the heart of the people."

Lennie: Very, very, true. It is always the voice of the poor people that maintains an oral history and that's where it all started, isn't it?

Make sure to take a look at Lennie website and see his heavy hoodoo overleaf on the Telluride Blues and Blues Festival website

American Blues News Staff

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Jim Stick in Colorado
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Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

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