In a multithreaded life that frayed out Dec. 21, John Bradshaw wove together two disappearing folk traditions. He was a consummate blues guitarist, schooled by the long-gone legends of the music. He was also one of the last of the authentic sideshow talkers, a magician of words who charmed passersby into a carnival world of freaks and wonders, willing and able to eat fire or hammer a long nail up his nose as the professional situation required.
Bradshaw and his nephew, Ron Curry, a longtime sideman and founder of underground jazz and world music group Hotel X, gained a measure of fame in part by opening for old-time fiddler Speedy Tolliver on a WCVE concert broadcast from In Your Ear studios. They also once played a concert heard by perhaps a million people in the Philippines.
Bradshaw's extraordinary acoustic guitar skills developed during the rich local coffeehouse scene of the 1960s, particularly at the Crossroads, a long-vanished folk and blues venue in the basement of a Franklin Street church. Bradshaw steeped himself in the tradition, seeking out the surviving architects of the music, Son House, Bukka White and Skip James, among others. Bradshaw once brought a Son House record to Son House's home, Curry recalls, only to find the impoverished musician had no way to play it. So Bradshaw bought him a record player, and remembered the old bluesman listening to his own music and crying.
During Bradshaw's blues performances, Richmond audiences occasionally got a glimpse of his sideshow talent. He was a well known “talker” — outsiders call them barkers — weaving a web of confidence and hyperbole to draw passersby into carnival attractions. For six seasons, from 1986-91, the Bradshaw Circus of World Curiosities revived a Coney Island, N.Y., tradition with an old-time mix of magic, freaks and human oddities. The star of his Coney Island show was the armless and legless Otis Jordon, aka “Frog Boy,” aka “The World's Only Human Cigarette Factory” — able to roll and light a cigarette using only his lips.
Bradshaw was not only Jordon's fast-talking promoter, but also his best friend and caretaker. He shared his family's seasonal Coney Island apartment with his limbless headliner.
It has been a long time since blues heard only by the kerosene lamplight of a Delta roadhouse, or that people would line up for the unironic thrill of a traveling freak show featuring the dim illusion of a pretty girl's head attached to a stuffed spider's body. Bradshaw brought the shadowy past into the brilliantly lighted present, making himself one of the last of a vanishing breed. He was the genuine article.
The memorial service for John Bradshaw is at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 2, at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 2341Winterfield Road, in Midlothian.