Earl Johnson


from http://www.bluegrassmessengers.com:
Earl Johnson was a veteran recording artist by 1926 having already waxed records as a member of Fiddlin’ John Carson Virginia Reelers and as a member of the Dixie String Band. Earl formed his own band after winning first prize at Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention in 1926, apparently tired of playing second fiddle in the shadow of Fiddlin’ John Carson. Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers played the wild an exuberant style of music that typified the Atlanta string band sound.

They were more than just a clone of Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, the Atlanta super-band that had struck pay dirt in the early “hillybilly” market. Johnson was regarded as one of the best fiddlers and a passable singer. After all Gid Tanner’s wife was very impressed of Earl Johnson’s fiddle playing. She assumed that Earl was a better fiddler because he read notes. After trying to teach her husband to read, she finally gave up- “thoroughly exasperated.”

Through Johnson’s connection with Okeh, the label that had discovered Fiddlin’ John Carson, The Dixie Entertainers began their recording career on Feb. 21, 1927. By now Ralph Peer was gone and had found greener pastures with the Victor label. Later that summer he would host the “big bang” of Country Music in Bristol and with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers’ song copyrights securely under his belt would become Country’s most powerful recording mogul.

Early Life
Earl Johnson was born Robert Earl Johnson on August 24, 1886 in Gwinnett County, Georgia.  He learned violin techniques under the tutelage of his father and a correspondence course and formed his first group with his brothers Albert (banjo) and Ester (guitar).  Before both of his brothers died in 1923, he played with the well known Fiddlin John Carson and later with his band the Virginia Reelers, and occasionally played with the popular Georgia Yellow Hammers (Phil Reeve, the Yellow Hammer’s manager, guitarist and singer, was born in 1896. A man of many talents he was also a piano tuner (like Johnson) and organized a brass band. In 1916 he was a known as a yodeler, and later became manager of Johnson’s group. Reeve had contacts with Victor records and later managed other Atlanta artists).

Johnson had a reputation that he could play both classical violin pieces and standard fiddle tunes. After trying classic violin he supported the traditional ways of playing the fiddle, according to Earl Johnson: “Back when I was younger I got the idea that violin music might be better than fiddle music so I gave it a good try. I studied several months under a well-known teacher and the longer I worked the more I realized that the fiddle furnished the superior type of music. The violinist doesn’t play his own music he translates somebody else’s ideas. And he concentrates so hard on getting his notes, his rests and all the other details the way the composer wrote them that he can put himself into the music. But a fiddler can cut loose, if he doesn’t like the tune he can improve on it.”

Fiddlin’ John Carson
Through the Atlanta Fiddler’s Convention Johnson befriended Carson who invited him to become part of his road shows and later his string band the Virginia Reelers. In his biography of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Earl Wiggins notes that, early in his road show career, Carson was accompanied by two men named Earl Johnson and that the Carsons distinguished them a half-century later by calling them Fiddlin’ Earl and Freckle-Faced Earl. The latter Earl Johnson “was a comic, sometimes in blackface, and a player on the one-string, cigar-box fiddle and the musical saw.” [G.Wiggins: “Fiddlin’ Georgia Crazy” Univ. Illinois Press 1987, p66]

Plays on WSB- 1922
Radio station WSB, “The Voice of the South” was sponsored by The Atlanta Journal, the newspaper that “covers Dixie like the dew.” The first broadcast was March 15, 1922 and the varied programming included Country Music, indicative of the progressive spirit of the station’s general manager, Lambdin Kay, known as “The Little Colonel” throughout the world of radio. Fiddlin’ John Carson is thought to have been the first country musician on WSB. The unconfirmed date of his first performance was on his birthday, March 23, 1922 about one week after the station opened.

Like Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner, Earl Johnson became a fiddler on WSB as early as 1922, the first year they broadcast. Here is a quote from the Atlanta Journal September 10, 1922: Another week of splendid progress woundup at WSB with a whirl of good music and entertaining novelties … For instance, Fiddlin’ John Carson, champion southern bowman, fresh from Fannin County and keyed up for the oldtime fiddlers’ convention in the auditorium September 28 and 29, is an institution in himself and his singing of ‘The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane’ and the playing of ‘The Old Hen Cackles’, by Fiddlin’ John and his four cronies, T.M. Brewer, of Knoxville, guitarist, L.E. Akin, of Hall County, banjoist, and Earl Johnson, of Gwinnett County, was enough to put any program over with a rush. [This group would be later become the core of The Virginia Reelers.]

The Virginia Reelers
After Fiddlin’ John Carson’s solo hit records in 1923 and 1924 Ralph Peer encouraged John to put together a band for future recordings. Naturally he chose Johnson, his buddy from his road shows and WSB, to be part of the group. The Reelers line-up featured John Carson (fiddle and vocals) Earl Johnson (fiddle), Moonshine Kate Carson  (guitar or banjo), T. M. “Bully” Brewer – (guitar or banjo) and sometimes L.E. Atkin (banjo). They recorded some 50 sided for Okeh between 1924 and 1930.

Earl was featured playing twin fiddles on many of Carson’s sessions. Carson included Johnson in the July 1, 1925 session with His Virginia Reelers in Atlanta where they recorded, songs including “Bully of the Town,” “Hop Light Lady,” “The Hawk and the Buzzard,” and “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia.” In Fiddlin’ John’s Atlanta session on October 10, 1927, Johnson played fiddle on: “Old Joe Clark,” “Gonna Swing on the Golden Gate,” “If You Can’t Get the Stopper Out Break the Neck,” “Did He Ever Return,” “Engineer on the Mogull” and “Hell Bound for Alabama.”

The next day Johnson played on: “The Smoke Goes Out the Chimney Just the Same,” “Going Down to Cripple Creek,” “Quit That Ticklin’ Me,” “It Won’t Happen Again for a Hundred Years or More,” “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over,” “Turkey in the Hay,” “Little Log Cabin in the Stream” and “Run Along Home, Sandy.” Earl also played on Fiddlin’ John Carson August 10, 1928 Atlanta session, fiddling on: “Moonshine Kate” and “John Makes Good Licker.”

In Georgia Stringbands: A Brief Survey by Tony Russell from Old Time Music No.4  Spring 1972, he gives this description: “Rythmically the Virginia Reelers were more earth-bound than the Skillet Lickers, for their banjo-guitar ‘rhythm section’ was rather static than dynamic. Thus, their recordings of ‘Jesse James’/’Swanee River’ (1927, Okeh 45139) are a little too explicitly underscored, though they remain nice melodic versions of the tunes, and the latter has very pleasant vocal harmonizing. From a later 1927 session came ‘Gonna Swing on the Golden Gate’/’Hell Bound for Alabama’ (OK 45159). The former is a variant of ‘Hold the Woodpile Down’ and one of the most joyfully performed stringband recordings I know. Earl Johnson’s demented arabesques over Carson’s statement of the melody greatly enhance the general brio. ‘Hell Bound’, based on an old coon shout, is a splendid example of a north Georgia band at its most energetic, and the controlled tension and insistent forward movement are admirably captured. Almost as good is ‘Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over’ (OK 45273, Cy 514), recorded a couple of days later. Again, Johnson decorates furiously at the top of the acoustic range, while further down Carson leads with authority.”

When John Carson’s Virginia Reelers recording sessions with Okeh, Earl Johnson established a working relationship wit the company and had no trouble scheduling his own band at the same session. Johnson continued his sessions with the Carsons and the Virginia Reelers until. Both bands recorded two sessions for Okeh in Atlanta from October 7-11, 1927.

The Dixie String Band
Johnson recorded in June 7, 1925 for Paramount in Chicago with the Dixie String Band (with another fiddler maybe Clayton McMichen) and Lee “Red” Henderson guitar, Arthur Tanner (Gid Tanner’s brother) -banjo and possible Webb Phillips- square dance calls. The songs recorded were “Atlanta Special (Chinese Breakdown); “Show Me The Way To Go Home;” “Soldier’s Joy;” “Leather Breeches;” and “Birmingham Rag (which Skillet Lickers called Hell Broke Loose in Georgia).” The session featured the first recording of the bluegrass standard “Chinese Breakdown” which they called “Atlanta Breakdown.”

Johnson also backed banjoist Arthur Tanner singing “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “Knoxville Girl” at the same session. The Dixie String band later merged with Gibson Kings, the Atlanta duo of Gibson guitarist Charles Brooks and John Dilleshaw. According to Charles Wolfe it was then called the Gibson Kings Dixie String Band. Later incantations of the group included J. F. Mitchell (leader and fiddler); Anita Wheeler-fiddle; Lowe Stokes-fiddle; Charles Brooks-guitar; John Dilleshaw-guitar; F.G. Dearman mandolin; W.M. Powell fiddle; R.J. Bolton banjo. Both Wheeler (twice) and Stokes were championship fiddlers in the state of Georgia.

Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention
Some of the most important figures in early Country Music received their first significant exposure as performers at the annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions. Among them were A.A. Gray, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Gid Tanner (of Dacula), Riley Puckett, Lowe Stokes, Earl Johnson and Clayton McMichen, all of whom went on to become nationally known radio and recording artists. Every year thousands would attend the Fiddlers’ Convention, which was held from 1913 to 1935. Not only were the contests fun but the tickets were inexpensive. Earl Johnson attended regularly from 1920 to 1934.

These events received copious coverage from Atlanta’s three daily newspapers and attracted the attention of out-of-state journalists, who reported on them in nationally circulated newspapers and magazines. “It was not a whompus chorus,” wrote one journalist, “neither does it resemble a shebang. It’s more like a cross between a thing-a-ma-jig and a doo-lollie.” The articles had colorful titles like, “Oldtime fiddlers Go Hog Wild and Saw the Catgut Until It Screams For Aid.”

When a sixteen year old Lowe Stokes defeated the elder statesman of Georgia fiddlers, Fiddlin’ John Carson, at the 1924 convention, the story was printed in the Literary Digest. In 1925 Stephen Vincent Benét published a poem titled “The Mountain Whippoorwill; or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers Prize.” The similarity between published reports of the Stokes/Carson contest and the events recounted in “The Mountain Whippoorwill” suggests the likely source for Benét’s poem.

Unwittingly, the Country musicians who performed at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions helped set the stage for the creation of commercial country music that would occur in the next decade; the use of old-time musicians as recording artists and as sources of live talent on radio broadcasts.

The annual fiddlers’ conventions were held in the old Atlanta City Auditorium at the corner of Courtland and Gilmer Streets. A typical convention started on a Thursday and ended the following Saturday night. The Thursday and Friday night programs were exhibition, or warm-up, programs and featured string bands, comedians, dancers, singers, and other types of entertainers in addition to the fiddlers. The contest, held on Saturday night, was usually followed by a square dance in the auditorium’s Taft Hall (later Veterans’ Memorial Hall).

Audiences for the fiddlers’ conventions included former rural dwellers who had recently migrated to Atlanta in search of employment in the city’s textile mills and other industries. Among others who attended to these annual musical events were local residents with rural Georgia roots who had become leaders in Atlanta’s business and political arenas. On many occasions members of Atlanta’s younger and urban-reared citizens came in search of something different in the way of entertainment.

After the Great Depression in 1929 interest in attending the event lessened. With competition from other sources of entertainment such as radio, motion pictures, and phonograph records, the Fiddlers’ Convention began to lose its audience, and in 1935 it came to an end. During the conventions’ heyday, crowned state champions included J. B. Singley (1913), Fiddlin’ John Carson (1914, 1923, 1927), Shorty Harper (1915, 1916), John Silvey (1917), A. A. Gray (1918, 1921, 1922, 1929), Lowe Stokes (1924, 1925), Earl Johnson (1926), Gid Tanner (1928), and Anita Sorrells Wheeler (1931, 1934).

Earl Johnson and His Dixie Entertainers
After being crowned Georgia state champion fiddler in 1926 at the convention, he joined up with guitarist Byrd Moore and banjoist Emmett Bankston to form his own group, Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers.  On Feb. 21, 1927 Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers cut their first sides for Okeh in NYC. The song list was “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Dixie,” “Hen Cackle,” “Bully of the Town,” “I’m Satisfied,” “Three Nights Experience” and “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” with Johnson singing lead and another member of the group singing a high falsetto in a similar fashion to the Skillet Lickers’ recordings.

Highlights of the session include the ragtime “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (featuring the humorous lyrics: She runs a weenie stand Way down in no man’s land/ Nobody’s business if I do); the Gid Tanner cover “I’m Satisfied,” and “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” (originally Thompson’s old Grey Mule). The intro of “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” features Johnson deftly imitating different animals:

“Spoken: I’m a-gonna play you a little piece now a-called “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule.” My name is Johnson, I used to plow one of them things down on the new ground. I’d play this fiddle late at night and I’d naturally sleep a little late every morning. One of the first things I’d hear when I’d wake up in the morning, I’d hear something down in the new ground on a dead limb, a cutting up something like this (fiddle makes woodpecker sound) Then I’d hear something down at the woodpile something like this (fiddle), I’d hear something down at the pig pen, (fiddle ) Suey. I’d hear something down at the barn and I’d know my time was comin’ and (fiddle plays mule sounds) feed that mule boy.”

Tony Russell gives an account of the bands: “Earl Johnson’s records, with bands called either The Dixie Entertainers or The Clodhoppers, do not usually feature twin fiddles, but give more attention to the banjoist (Emmett Bankston, on at least some sessions), who plays in a hard, percussive, frailing style. They also have adept guitarists, such as Red Henderson and Byrd Moore. Henderson, an Alabamian, may be heard on ‘Earl Johnson’s Arkansas Traveler’ (1927, OK 45156, Cy 514); Moore, a Virginian, was on at least two earlier sessions, occasionally taking the vocals. (He also recorded for Gennett and Columbia, with Clarence Greene, Clarence Ashley and others). Excellent examples of Earl Johnson’s excitable, nervous manner are “Leather Breeches/Red Hot Breakdown” (1927, OK 45209, Hi HLP8003) and, from the same date, “All Night Long” (OK 45383, OT X101). Johnson was probably of an age midway between that of Carson (b. 1868) and that of McMichen (b. 1900), but he seems to have inclined towards the repertoire of the older man, and his recorded work includes little of the popular and jazz material which McMichen employed. Like Carson, he eschewed waltzes, preferring traditional fiddle tunes and the brisker melodies of the minstrel shows.”

When Lee “Red” Henderson replaced Byrd Moore as the guitar player, the group became known as the Dixie Clodhoppers. They later recorded again with Henderson in the group as Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers. Later sessions employed his Johnson’s wife Lula Bell and guitarist Bill Henson.



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