Johnson Family String Band
A collection of materials documenting the Johnson Family string band of Sand Mountain, Alabama. Included are:
* excerpts of 1953 radio broadcasts of the Johnsons' Sand Mountain Jamboree, WAVU-FM, Albertville, Alabama
* home recordings
* select typewritten playlists for radio broadcasts, 1951-1952, prepared by guitarist and emcee Ras Johnson, along with notes detailing fan requests and fanmail contents
* band photographs
* business correspondence with potential sponsors
* original copyrighted compositions by Emzer DeRastus "Ras" Johnson
From the mid-nineteenth century into the 1960s, the Johnson family played a central role in the social and musical life of their surrounding Sand Mountain, Alabama, community. After the Civil War, brothers William and George Johnson, both fiddlers, established themselves as frequent square dance players; in the new century, six of George’s children would form the core of the popular Johnson Family string band. That group’s line-up included brothers William, Leo, and Dan on fiddles; John on banjo; Aldous on bass; and Ras on guitar. Ras’s wife Ella played mandolin and piano and sang; their daughter Imogene and Leo’s wife Elma provided additional vocals. In later years, banjo player Burt Stewart would also join the band.
A detailed history of the Johnson musicians appears in Joyce Cauthen’s 1989 book With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: Old-Time Fiddling in Alabama. Of the family’s radio broadcasts – excerpts of which are heard in this collection – Cauthen writes:
“The ‘Sand Mountain Jamboree’ would open with a rendering of ‘Turkey in the Straw’ by the Johnson brothers joined by Burt Stewart playing banjo, clawhammer-style. The next number would perhaps be a more modern tune like ‘Drifting and Dreaming,’ sung by Ella, Elma, and Elma’s daughter, Imogene. Announcer Jesse Culp would then deliver some earnest words of shopping advice from sponsors … while the band softly played an appropriate tune, perhaps ‘Anytime You’re Feeling Lonely’ or ‘Chicken Reel.’ Each program was a race with the clock, the band trying to honor all requests mailed in during the week, before rushing off to play for a hall full of dancers at the armory. There would be hoedown tunes like ‘Flop-Eared Mule,’ ‘Eighth of January,’ ‘Paddy on the Turnpike,’ ‘Black Mountain Rag,’ ‘Sally Gooden,’ ‘Flatwoods,’ and ‘John’s Got a Wooden Leg,’ to which the guests in the studio added whoops, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping. There would be sacred tunes such as ‘Shall We Gather at the River,’ ‘Hide Me, Rock of Ages,’ and ‘Where the Soul Never Dies,’ and there were swing tunes like ‘Coconut Grove’ and ‘In the Mood’” (Cauthen, 148-149).
This variety is in full evidence in the tracks below. The Johnsons' popularity is equally evident, reflected in Ras Johnson's many references to fan letters and requests;
Johnson's typewritten setlists, some of which are also included in this collection, also document comments and details from each week's fanmail.
Visitors to our collections may select individual audio tracks for play or stream multiple tracks in the following playlists:
Johnson Family Radio Broadcasts:
Johnson Family Home Recordings:
All material in this collection has been made available to the Southern Music Research Center by George Johnson, grandson of Ella and Ras. Special thanks also to Jim Cauthen, Joyce Cauthen, and Ernie Arrant.
Photo courtesy George Johnson.
Each week, the Johnsons received piles of fan mail, often including requests; Ras Johnson's typewritten set lists…
Each week, the Johnsons received piles of fan mail, often including requests; Ras Johnson's typewritten set lists include notes about fan…
Each week, the Johnsons received piles of fan mail, often including requests; Ras Johnson's typewritten setlists include notes about fan…
Also included is a list of sponsorship rates and a business card…
Courtesy George Johnson.
- Johnson Family String Band