Earl Johnson (#2)

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Earl Johnson, Gid Tanner, J.T. Wright (late 1950s)

from JEMF Quarterly, vol. 10, part 3, #35, autumn 1974:

EARL JOHNSON: PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN 
By Donald Lee Nelson 

[Note: The author wishes to thank Mrs. Earl 
Johnson of Lawrenceville, Georgia for her co- 
operation in the preparation of this article. ] 

Perhaps nowhere was the tragic aftermath of 
the Civil War more fully experienced during the 
quarter-century following Appomattox than in 
the state of Georgia. Inexhaustable volumes have 
been compiled that deal with virtually every facet 
of that portion of the Southern panorama. Yet, 
out of this dismal setting emerged many of the 
South's leading musicians, most of them from the 
northwestern part of the state. 

Into that environment and era were born to 
Gwinnett County farmers William and Mary (Davis 
Johnson six children. Two did not survive in- 
facy but the remaining four, Albert, Robert Earl, 
Ester (son) and Alma, grew to adulthood deter- 
mined to remain on their beloved native soil. 

Named for a signer of the Declaration Of 
Independence, the axe-head shaped Gwinnett 
County is just south of the Chattahoochie River, 
and its cotinty seat, Lawrenceville, reposes se- 
dately within a half-hour's drive of Atlanta. 

Robert Earl, the second son, who came into 
the world on 24 August 1886, was to grow from a 
family and neighborhood musician in the mould of 
his contemporaries into a lifelong professional 
performer. His father, William, was a renowned 
old-time fiddler whose infectious playing style 
permeated the boy. 

During the hours his father spent working in the fields 
young Earl would take the elder Johnson's violin from its resting place 
and doggedly try to extract "Old Hen Cackled" or 
"Soldier's Joy" from its often uncooperative 
strings. Finally he achieved a consistency of 
sound which pleased him, and he demonstrated his 
skill to a father who was totally unaware of his 
son's constant practice. From that time on, all 
of the Johnson children received strong parental 
encouragement for their musical efforts. 

It was not long before his two brothers joined 
Earl in the formation of the Johnson Brothers 
Band. Albert, the eldest, picked the banjo. Ester 
played guitar, and Earl, of course, was the fidd- 
ler. By 1902, his sixteenth year. Earl felt ready 
to purchase his own instrument. He selected a 
violin modeled after the Stradivarius and used it 
for many years until it was completely "played 
out." 

At this time music was still an avocation 
with the Johnsons, and Earl struck out, in his 
father's wake, to become a farmer. About 1907 
he married for the first time. He and his bride 
continued to reside in the Gwinnett County area. 

Not satisfied with being a good rural musi- 
cian. Earl took a correspondence course from 
Chicago. As he would complete an assignment 
he would take it to a music teacher in Atlanta 
for correction and evaluation. Although he 
would be generally regarded as a country per- 
former during his entire lifetime. Earl Johnson 
was to become as adroit with popular and clas- 
sical pieces as he was at "Mississippi Sawyer. " 

The Johnson Brothers continued to be high- 
ly respected as a musical group in the Atlanta 
area until tragedy struck, Albert and Ester 
died within six months of each other during 1923. 
It was a bitter blow to Earl, who had been very 
close to both. 

During the twenties the influx of recorded 
music made Atlanta a mecca for musicians 
from the eastern parts of Kentucky and Tenne- 
ssee, western North Carolina, South Carolina, 
and Alabama, as well as north Georgia. 

The city's success as a pre-Nashville Nashville 
was due, in great measure, to Fiddlin' John 
Carson. The famed fiddler -showman had prac- 
tically christened the record industry in the 
south in 1923, and was a successful and pro- 
lific recording artist. Carson, who was ac- 
quainted with Earl Johnson, persuaded him to 
record with his band, called the Virginia 
Reelers. This probably opened up a wider aud- 
ience to Johnson's fiddling, as his earliest 
recordings, on the Paramount label, were quite 
poorly distributed. 

The employment of Johnson in the capacity 
of second fiddler was a wise move. Whether or 
not it was fully Carson's idea remains unknown 
--perhaps it was the brainchild of OKeh A & R 
man Polk Brockman but the fiery, skillful 
notes supplied by the Lawrenceville musician 
were in contrast to the rough-hewn, earthy 
tones of Fiddlin' John. 

To what measure the musical style differences between the two were 
caused by age (Carson was eighteen years Earl's 
senior) rather than by conditions of instruction 
cannot be adequately charted, and it is a curi- 
ously parellel ralationship to the Gid Tanner- 
Clayton McMichen situation of the same period. 

Earl was far too proficient to remain in the 
second spot for any length of time, and formed 
a group he called the Dixie Entertainers. Al- 
though the personnel were not always the same, 
most, if not all recordings were made with Lee 
"Red" Henderson, a freckle-faced guitarist from 
Blairsville, and Emmet Bankston of Atlanta on 
banjo. Byrd Moore, a guitarist and barber from 
Norton, Virginia, who was living in Atlanta at 
the time, and J. T. Wright, a left-handed fiddler 
from Marietta, were often in the group. 

Fate Norris, the famed banjoist with the Skillet Lickers 
sometimes played at engagements as a replace- 
ment for Bankston, who was in ill health. 

As a professional musician. Earl stood in 
good stead with recording officials who trekked 
to Atlanta. His group was well-rehearsed and had 
their "time down" so that wasteful run-throughs 
were eliminated. The Dixie Entertainers were 
never "practiced out," however, and always gave 
a vibrant and vivid performance. Most of their 
recorded items were of the hillbilly variety for 
various reasons. 

Perhaps foremost was the fact that the rural audiences where the great majority 
of the records were sold, were very fond of old- 
time tunes, and had a natural aversion to the 
trends popular music was taking. The necessity 
of a composer credit and royalty on any original 
composition may have predisposed record company 
executives to favor public domain material. 

One of Earl Johnson's favorite pieces, how^- 
ever, was a relatively current song, "Little 
Grave In Georgia. " It was an impassioned ballad 
about little Mary Phagan, a young Atlanta girl 
who had been murdered in 1915.  

Earl had lived for a time in Marietta, the town where the child 
was buried, and felt a particular closeness with 
the song, although he seldom discussed the slaying 
or any related incidents. Several songs of the 
event ballad variety had been recorded about this 
ugly crime, most of which were gruesome and 
sensational, but sadly lacking in both propriety and 
musical content. In "Little Grave In Georgia" 
Earl's vocal permitted the words and music to 
elicit the proper reaction from the listener without 
resorting to a plethora of emotions. 

Sorrow came to Earl Johnson again in early 
1928 when his wife Mamie died in Atlanta. Late 
that year he met and married Miss Lula Bell Rogers, 
and the two moved to Blairsville, near the junction 
of the Georgia-North Carolina-Tennessee borders. 
Sometime prior to their meeting. Miss Rogers, in 
company with her niece, had attended one of the 
Atlanta Fiddler's Conventions staged by Professor 
Smart. The niece had been favorably impressed 
with Gid Tanner, but Miss Rogers felt Earl was 
the better musician. 

After his first fiddle was "worn out" Earl was 
presented with a custom-made one by two fans, 
the Johnson Brothers (no relation) who were in- 
strument makers from Sand Moiontain, Alabama. 
The brothers were so impressed with the Gwinnett 
County musician's prowess that they felt he was 
worthy of their best effort. 

Although the Dixie Entertainers performed 
consistently for the Okeh Company, in late 1929 
they were recorded by RCA Victor on one of its 
field trips to Atlanta. At this session they placed 
six sides on wax, all of which were issued 
unfortunately in rare and poorly marketed series. 
This was their only contact with that company, 
and the reason they did not work for them again 
is lost to time. 

For some years the recording industry flour- 
ished in the north Georgia area, but as the ram- 
ifications of the stock market crash filtered down 
to sharply curtail the American "pleasure pur- 
chases, " the record industry, especially the port- 
able studio variety, suffered a meteoric decline. 
A few performers, those with a visible sales 
"track record" -warranted the expense of being 
sent to New York to record. The OKeh Company 
itself, however, was hard hit, and soon expired. 

The Johnson group (who also sometimes cal- 
led themselves the Clodhoppers) journeyed 
throughout the southern and eastern coastal states 
during the next few years. Even though times 
were lean, the group continued to amass a quorum 
of admirers which enabled them to survive. 

During the mid-thirties death again took 
someone close to Earl. Emmet Bankston, appa- 
rently despondent over poor health, took his own 
life. The Atlanta banjoist had been a life-long 
bachelor and was very close to the Johnson fam- 
ily. 

Earl continued to perfornn, still travelling 
when necessary, and appearing at Fiddler's 
Conventions throughout the southeast. He 
taught his two sons, Roger and Robert, to play 
both banjo and guitar, and when possible he 
carried them with him on tours. He was one 
of the very few rural musicians to continue 
effectively in his chosen profession all during 
the Depression, pre- and post-war periods, and 
after. His edge on success was primarily due 
to his ability to relate to his audience to play 
what they wanted to hear. He kept up with new 
trends in music, knew the current hits as well 
as the popular standards, and maintained a 
strong liason with both. He was an all-around 
performer and showman whose programs had 
something for everyone. He never updated the 
old tunes, knowing audiences preferred them 
done in a standard manner, and he did the cur- 
rent numbers just as they had been written. 

Earl had always been a popular figure at the 
Stone Mountain Fiddler's Convention, and, even 
in his seventy- eighth year, he attended the 
gathering. On Saturday night, 22 May, 1965 he 
and his sons performed for a large gathering 
there. Early the following Monday he suffered 
a heart attack, and passed away in Lawrence- 
ville one week later, on 31 May.
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