John Johnson: Strange Creek Fiddling, 1947 (West Virginia University Press)
edited from Paul Roberts (http://www.mustrad.org):
The late John Johnson (1916-96) of Strange Creek in Braxton County, West Virginia was the sort of figure around whom legends easily grow. A man of many and varied talents and an inquiring, restless mind he was not readily constrained by his mountain upbringing, first joining the Army and then travelling the length and breadth of the US as an itinerant worker. He was a master of many manual trades, had an enviable reputation as an athlete and strong man, and was an accomplished poet and painter as well as a musician. Indeed, he was already something of a legendary figure in West Virginia fiddling when he made these recordings at the relatively young age of 31.
The 23 tracks presented here have been selected from 80 sides recorded by Professor Louis Chappell of West Virginia University over a concentrated two day session in August 1947 using a homemade aluminium-disc recording machine – some four days after his historic recording session with the great Edden (Edwin) Hammons. Since then Johnson’s legend has continued to grow among fiddle enthusiasts. Chappell is reputed to have considered him Hammons’ equal and others have compared him to the great Ed Haley. Despite ‘discovery’ by the Old-Time fiddle revival in the late 1970s as far as I know these are the only recordings he made, which can only have helped maintain their legendary status.
Before we go any further let’s make it clear that the music on this CD is not really on a par with the extant recordings of Hammons and Haley. It’s quite possible that at his peak Johnson was a comparable figure, but anyone expecting music of exactly the same stature on this disc will be disappointed. To be fair, it has to be remembered that when these recordings were made he had not played for several years and didn’t even own a fiddle – he had to borrow one from Chappell. This is not immediately obvious. There is a slight awkwardness now and again, especially in his noting fingers which tend to occasionally bluff the adjacent string in typical beginners fashion, and there’s one glorious pause-clunk in Wagoner when the end of the bow seems to slip off the string (we’ve all done it). But these are minor problems, his technique is seriously impressive by any standard, and quite astonishing given the conditions under which he was performing.
Read entire review here.