The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #52945   Message #2698534
Posted By: GUEST,Bob Coltman
12-Aug-09 - 09:44 AM
Thread Name: Origins: Johnson Boys/Johnson Gals
Subject: RE: Origins: Johnson Boys/Johnson Gals
Getting back to "Johnson Boys" as we know it today, let me try out this origin theory on you.

I've always suspected "Johnson Boys" of being originally a composed song from outside the traditional mainstream. Perhaps not far outside, but still outside.

Gus Meade's Country Music Sources finds no versions older than the recorded ones of the late 1920s. The song does not occur in early published collections such as Sharp, Henry, Randolph, etc. It does appear in Lunsford and Stringfield's "30 and 1 Folksongs from the Southern Mountains" (1929), but Lunsford's and the Grants' versions are so similar I'm guessing they could stem from a Grant Bros. performance, or even their 1929 recording or someone who'd heard it.   

None of the first three versions in Brown's North Carolina Folklore (1952, but representing a collection period that ended in 1943) is dated, but the third quotes Thomas Smith of Zionville, Watauga Co., NC: 'Johnson Boys' is said by our oldest people to be one of the oldest tunes. It was years ago one of the chief tunes played at parties, shindigs, etc."

Brown's note about an unquoted fourth version says its one verse (evidently the usual first verse) was "contributed in 1922 by — Pickens." This is the first firm date of a lyric being put to what in its earlier days appears to have been solely an instrumental—a fiddle tune. (Whether then known by its current title or some other, I don't know.)

Frank Warner confirm that "Johnson Boys" was an instrumental, lyricless or nearly so, until quite late in its development. In his 1962 notes to Frank Proffitt's brief recorded version on Folkways FA 2360 he writes, "This is a dance tune for fiddle and banjo—one of the oldest in the mountains—and the words are incidental. Frank ... picked up these verses from people on Beech Mountain, friends from Virginia, and others here and there. The version in Warner's book "Traditional American Folk Songs" is longer, but only because it's compounded with verses learned elsewhere, none of them clearly very old.

Certainly the Civil War reference in the Grants' version is no indication of age, any more than is, say, Jimmy Driftwood's "Billy Yank and Johnny Reb."

My tentative conclusion, therefore, is that "Johnson Boys" never had any words apart from, that familiar first verse, until the mid- to late 1920s at the earliest. Someone, several someones in fact, then tailor-made their own lyrics to fit that piquant tune with its one haphazard verse.

Who might have been the perpetrators? The first three performers of record, the Al Hopkins band, the Grant Bros., and Lily Mae Ledford of the Coon Creek Girls—while all had impeccable traditional-music origins and sang traditional songs with great flair—were highly professional radio and/or live stage performance bands constantly needing new repertoire. I'm guessing they each wanted to make the "Johnson Boys" fiddle tune into a song with enough verses for record/radio play, and each came up with different sets of lyrics.

Now, as to that North Carolina version ... If you want to venture really far into speculation, recall that Jimmie Rodgers began as vocalist for the Grant Brothers. Perhaps you need look no farther for a wordsmith for the lyric? Well, no ... it really isn't in Jimmie's style at all. But one of the Grants could have been the lyricist.

In any case I'm proposing that the multi-verse lyrics to "Johnson Boys" all sprang up between, say, 1926 and 1936 around Virginia (Hopkins), North Carolina (Grants) and later eastern Kentucky (Lily Mae Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls) in response to repertoire needs.

Before that, it was a fiddle tune entirely, or almost, without words ... just that first verse that nearly all the later versions—no matter how much they diverge otherwise—have in common.

There, I've stuck my neck out. Your thoughts?