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Genesee Johnny navigates the Black roots of the blues

Photo of Genesee Johnny playing a guitar
Photo provided
Aaron Winters
Rochester-based musician Genesee Johnny.

There’s an old railroad bed behind Genesee Johnny’s parents’ property in Rush. The tracks were hauled away long ago, now it’s just a power line access road through the suburban wilderness. A nice, cleared path for miles, where he can walk the dog. At railroad marker 216, Genesee Johnny says, is a bluff overlooking a pond. He’s all alone. No people. Just trees and animals.

And songs come to him.

This is the bulk of the Rochester bluesman’s new album, “Saturday in Paradise.” Introspective. Contemplative. Nice guitar work.

Genesee Johnny had initially wanted to release it on vinyl. And that’s where it feels like this music belongs. A sound that just wasn’t made for CDs and downloading. “I spend most of my time at home listening to LPs,” Genesee Johnny says.

But vinyl’s too costly to produce. And the turnaround time from recording to releasing a vinyl record can be longer than a year. So it’s CDs, and easy downloads, for now, for “Saturday in Paradise.”

One advantage a CD has over vinyl is, you get more songs. So near the end of “Saturday in Paradise,” the listener hears some of Genesee Johnny’s material that wouldn’t have fit on a vinyl record. Songs that are, he admits, “different in tone.” Angier. More urgent.

This casts the collection in a light, he says, that is maybe “a little schizophrenic.”

And Genesee Johnny admits to a kind of cultural schizophrenia. He’s a middle-aged white guy playing a music — the blues — that has old roots in Black music.

Time’s been moving fast for Genesee Johnny. He was 20 years old when he got married, bought a house, and had a son. All within the space of four weeks. They later added a daughter to the family. Genesee Johnny worked as a quality engineer until 2017, then joined his father’s auto-painting business. He was thinking he might take over when his dad retired.

But cars aren’t getting painted much these days. “It was not a smart financial move to take over the business,” he says.

Genesee Johnny sees a sobering future as well. “For people of my generation, we’re probably never going to get a real retirement,” he says.

So as he closes in on 40 this summer, and with his wife doing well with her own mental-health therapy business, there’s something that’s been on the mind of Genesee Johnny for a while. The time is now or never to fully pursue that music dream. “I might be sixty-something years old before I can start,” he says. “I might not even live that long. I might as well go for it.”

“Saturday in Paradise” is the big commitment.

“It’s scary,” he admits. “At the same time, its liberating in a way.”

Quit-your-job, play-your-guitar scary.

Genesee Johnny has actually been on the local scene for a while, playing the clubs. He’s the host of Record Archive’s Son House Blues Night every last Thursday of the month. The Feb. 24 guest is the icon of Rochester’s blues scene, Joe Beard. On March 10, Genesee Johnny plays a solo set at Fairport’s B-Side, along with Gordon Munding.

For the most part, “Saturday in Paradise” is not in a hurry. There is always time for a guitar solo — acoustic, or perhaps the fuzz-shrouded electrics of “Luna E Ritorno.” The title translates as “to the moon and back,” with the song calling for “time to give the love that you deserve.”

The album contemplates concert tickets from long ago. The hoedown of “Lemonade” is the everyday reality of “working all week to break even with the money that I didn’t make.”

The songwriting process itself comes up in a few of these songs. In “Cheap Old Cars,” Genesee Johnny calls out with weary cynicism the people who “write a poem and suddenly they’re Robert Frost.” This is where Genesee Johnny remembers a simpler time: “Stayed up late getting stoned. Cheap old cars were all we owned.”

Then comes that schizophrenic swing of the pendulum. In the relentless march of “Late Night TV,” Genesee Johnny sings of “gray-haired men in suits and ties trying to tell me that everything is going fine. When, everything is not fine.” Because, “America’s the home of the free as long as you are rich and you are white.”

His “Director of Business Development” has the ring of an instant country classic, a song that’s fallen off the Buck Owens wagon, driven by Jerry Reed. References to “writing songs, drinking beer, and smoking grass” doom it to a life of no mainstream radio airplay. Genesee Johnny celebrates joblessness in “Don’t Let No Work Get You Down.” Beer cans and cigarette butts litter “Blacked Out Again,” as he sings, “The last thing I remember was getting up and singing with the band. I can’t remember, how the hell did I get home?”

We can relate. Yet, here is something else that’s been on Genesee Johnny’s mind. For the last four or five years, he admits.

Is a white man playing the blues a quiet cultural appropriation?

The idea, Genesee Johnny says, was ignited by something written by the Black, acoustic-guitar bluesman, Corey Harris. Harris is also a blues academic — he was awarded a MacArthur Fellows Program “Genius Grant.” So the question carried some weight when Harris wrote a blog that asked, “Can White People Sing the Blues?”

His answer was: No. It robs the music of its historical context.

“The honest first reaction that I had to it was, it kind of got me mad,” Genesee Johnny says. “Why the hell can’t I do what I want? I love this music, it’s all I’ve listened to since I was 15 years old. I have every right as anybody else to play it.”

But he now sees more clearly. “It was never about that, ‘you can’t do it and be white,’” he says. It was never about keeping anybody from doing it. It’s more about, just like all the other race-relations stuff in our country, you just kind of succumb to the whole white supremacy, white structure of things. And people don’t even realize it’s going on, or that they’re actively participating in it. They don’t mean it to be that way, and they don’t want it to come across that way. It’s just how it ends up being.”

Album cover for "Saturday in Paradise" pictures a skeletal figure in a tropical setting
Photo provided
The album cover of Genesee Johnny's "Saturday in Paradise."

There are plenty of excellent white blues musicians. In this city, and across the country. And anyone booking clubs or festivals would find it easy to set the booking of clubs or festivals on “cruise control,” as Genesee Johnny says. Book the white guys, you already have their phone numbers.

“Everybody would be fine with that,” Genesee Johnny says. “But would that be right?”

There may not be prejudice, or racism, in the intent. But are those lines already built into the machinery?

“If you’re willing to kind of take the step back and really kind of think about it and see the other side of the argument, maybe, it’s getting to that point of acknowledging it,” Genesee Johnny says. “It’s not that I can’t do it still, and I can’t play and love it and give it 100 percent all the time.

“It’s now, again, it’s just that now I’m in the position of, ‘Hey sometimes the booking is up to me, so what am I going to go about that?’ Do I just keep doing what I had been doing, or do I now sorta say, ‘Gee, I should put some effort into who else could I book? What other talent is out there?’

“If I can do anything with my white privilege, I guess, to right the ship, I’m all about it.”

Genesee Johnny says he’s tried to make an effort to include diversity in the Son House nights. “Hiring people of color to play in the house band, and as the featured artist,” he says.

Joe Beard is Black. That was easy. Now what?

“There could be guys in this city alone that we don’t know about right now, in the community of color, that are into blues,” Genesee Johnny says. “And I would love to give them the opportunity to get on the stage and show that off to everybody else.”

Yet Genesee Johnny admits that offering himself as a white savior for Black musicians doesn’t move the needle much. “I’m still a white guy living in a suburb,” he says. Brighton, in fact.

“In my circle of people that I associate with and work with,” he says, “we’re still a very segregated town in that sense.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.