To play the blues, and have folks who have been surrounded by it their whole lives show you respect, it takes a level of authenticity that won't be found inside a music school. When Cool John Ferguson steps onto a stage, he is greeted with the admiration of those that know what he has experienced in his life, and the reverence of fellow musicians that understand they are in the company of a legend who nearly fell through the cracks of music history. For a man who has been described by an artist as distinguished as Taj Mahal as one of the five best guitarists on the planet, it's amazing to think that many still haven't heard of him.
Born off the coast of South Carolina on Saint Helena Island, Ferguson's life wasn't one of luxury. Surrounded by Gullah descendants, young Ferguson watched people struggle to make ends meet, working jobs that they openly hated. He realized then that his budding musical talents, which were already clear to those who spent any time around him, were his way of becoming his own man.
"I had worked in landscaping and construction as a young man, but I always saw music as being the best way for me to become my own boss and self-employed, so I stuck with it," he says. "I still book my own gigs, only playing as much as I want to. It's the same as being a construction worker: you work when you want to."
Ferguson became serious about going pro as a musician at a very young age. With a trio of siblings already making waves in the gospel world with their group the Ferguson Sisters, the guitarist seized the opportunity to break into the genre's music scene as well. However, he'd soon discover that the money wasn't enough to make him forsake performance opportunities of a more secular nature.
Ferguson began booking gigs at local bars while still a high school student. His band at that time focused more on psychedelic pop and was met with worry and consternation from members of the church, who made sure to tell him whenever possible that backwater bars were no place for self-respecting Christians to spend their nights.
In a roundabout way, these members helped Ferguson come to terms with keeping one foot in the world of gospel while also still playing the songs that actually paid. When asked if he ever saw any of those concerned citizens at the bars, and not necessarily to catch his show, he doesn't hesitate in answering.
"That happened all of the time back then. It actually made me feel less bad about playing in both venues, churches and bars, when I was performing and would see someone from the stage. The way I looked at it then was that I was just trying to find work. Playing in the bars, it was just another gig, and gave me a chance to leave with a little money at the end of the night. It didn't really have a negative effect on me. I still went to school come Monday, and still graduated," he explains.
"It's like that now, with the making of a little money," he says. "I'm not going to play any and every venue just for a dollar. I still have a little self respect, and I had it back then, too."
The ability to say no to a bad gig and to turn down just any old opportunity at a paycheck is remarkable to find in an artist who had nearly fallen into obscurity only a few years ago. The Music Maker Relief Foundation — a non-profit dedicated to protecting the musical history of the South by helping those musicians who need support the most — began recording and releasing Ferguson's music in an effort to preserve it for future generations of blues lovers.
His relationship with Music Maker soon expanded beyond that of mere performer and record label. Ferguson has worked as Music Maker's director of creative development since the 1990s. In that role, he's managed to help many older artists in much the same way that he was originally aided. He looks back upon his years at Music Maker and takes comfort in knowing that, in the future, younger people delving into the history of the blues will have a chance to discover some of the work that he has had a direct hand in creating.
"I've worked with a lot of older cats that never really received any significant recognition," Ferguson explains. "And I was able to play with them on their recordings, which turns out to be the first time their music was available on CD. It feels good to sit down with an 80-year-old cat and help them get their music out there. I guess over the years I've sat in on the recordings of over 100 artists like that."
He continues, "I pass what I know on to both the younger and older musicians these days. There is always a ton of people out there that haven't been discovered, and there will always be a ton of them out there that will never be discovered at any level. It helps the older artists mentally if they stay relevant to music lovers."