Born Robert Earl Johnson in Gwinnett County, Georgia in 1886, Earl Johnson learned how to play the fiddle from his father and the violin from a correspondence course. He became adept at both instruments—which was pretty unusual for the time—but found the fiddle to be better suited to creative expression. In his own words:
“Back when I was younger I got the idea that violin music might be better than fiddle music so I gave it a good try. I studied several months under a well-known teacher and the longer I worked the more I realized that the fiddle furnished the superior type of music. The violinist doesn’t play his own music he translates somebody else’s ideas. And he concentrates so hard on getting his notes, his rests and all the other details the way the composer wrote them that he (can’t) put himself into the music. But a fiddler can cut loose, if he doesn’t like the tune he can improve on it.”
By 1922, his ability to improve on an established tune lead to a number of appearances on Atlanta’s WSB, aka “The Voice of the South.” Fiddlin’ John Carson was also a regular on that station, and he asked Earl to join his group, The Virginia Reelers. Over 50 recordings for Okeh were to follow.
By 1927, Earl was ready to spread his wings and record with his own group—and even try his hand at singing. Okeh had no problem with that, so guitarist Byrd Moore and banjoist Emmett Bankston were recruited and Earl Johnson and His Dixie Entertainers was born. This particular 78 is from their very first recording date in 1927. Take a listen to this ode to the good life, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Note the mention of a lady who “…runs a weenie stand/Way down in no man’s land/Nobody’s business if I do.”
“Three Night’s Experience” tells the tale of a man getting tricked by his wife when he comes home drunk three nights in a row. And “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” features a spoken opening from Earl, painting a clear picture of life on the farm.
“Bully of the Town” is a good example of the strong foundation laid down by the sidemen.
All of these songs, along with four others, were recorded in the same day. Musicians didn’t mess around back then.
Byrd Moore left a few months, and was replaced by Lee “Red” Henderson. Johnson renamed the group Earl Johnson’s Clodhoppers and kept on going with rollicking songs like “I Get My Whiskey From Rockingham.”
He had returned to the old name of Dixie Entertainers by 1929, and continued to record. By the end of 1930, the songs were starting to slow down a touch, but not to any ill effect. Here’s “There’s No Place Like Home.”
Johnson stopped recording after 1931 but continued to play on the radio and at fiddling competitions right up until a week before his death at the age of 78, in 1965.