The Johnson family was a family of musicians. Any time two or more Johnson siblings gathered, music was bound to happen. Pictured above are brothers Vonnie, Donnis, Adron and Earnest Johnson in a photo taken about 1935. Donnis's daughter, Glenda, recently provided me with a treasure trove of photographs, and I love this one. The brothers are children of Fisher D. Johnson and Nora T. Thornton. Not pictured here is another brother, Julius.
Family reunions, Sunday afternoons, birthdays. Any occasion was an excuse for the Johnson family to get together and play music. Actually, there didn't really need to be an occasion. Glader Johnson Mills's daughter, Vera Mae, said that Fisher and Nora often had dances at their house in which they would roll back the rugs, clear out the furniture, and make a pallet in another room for the kids to sleep on. Then the singing and dancing would begin and last all night.
Fisher Johnson apparently was a buck-dancer extraordinaire. Buck-dancing is a form of dancing that is similar to clogging in which the knees are slightly bent and the dancer's arms and legs are rather loose. It is truly a southern Appalachian dance and has been said to be a fusion of Scottish, Irish, Black and Cherokee cultures. A fiddle was usually involved in the high-energy buck dance. Picture a tap dancer or clogger, without the taps, shuffling his or her feet to music of a fiddle.
When Fisher was about 80 years old, he performed in a talent show at Fairview School. He cut loose on the stage with a buck dance, and the crowd loved it!
Nora Thornton Johnson had a beautiful voice. According to Vera Mae, Nora sang in the choir at Sandy Springs Baptist Church for several years. Her brothers, Ira and Thomas, could sing as well. People would come from miles around to hear them sing bass. All of the Thorntons could sing, she said.
The daughters of Fisher and Nora were musical as well. They could play a piano or organ by ear. Hum a tune for them, and they could play it back for you. Vera Mae said that her Aunt Syble could "make music on a tin bucket." Her mother Glader particularly liked playing the organ. When she and husband Henry moved to Nettleton with their young family in the 1940s, her organ wouldn't fit on the wagon and had to be left behind. In later years, Glader would play the piano at her children's homes, often at the request of her grandchildren.
Dorothy Johnson Taylor loved to dance too, and was adept at dancing the Charleston. Dorothy tried to teach Glader how to dance, but Glader preferred knitting and crocheting to dancing.
The blend of Johnson and Thornton genes has produced talented musicians in several generations of Itawambians. One such musician is Jackie Johnson who is the proprietor of the Tombigbee Jamboree in Fulton. Jackie's daddy is Earnest, the little fellow on the right in the above photograph. In 1969, Jackie and my husband, along with the female members of the Fulton Junior High School ensemble, cut an album. A pretty dang good album too. Jackie played the guitar while Mike played the mandolin for the ensemble.
As for Vera Mae, she says that the music gene passed her by, but her children and grandchildren carry it on.