J.R. Johnston, interviewed in October 2018.
J.R. Johnston, one of the Ozarks’ longtime rhythm banjo players, died in May 2019. He was interviewed around seven months prior to his passing in his home near Norwood. Here are some of the things he said.
He paid $11 for the banjo he held in his hands, picked up at a hockshop when he was only a teenager. Even when he was a child, his fingers yearned to play music; in an Ozarks long gone, and the son of a Baptist preacher who thought such things were of the devil.
Thanks to a visitor, however, those fingers eventually learned to pick banjo stings — and ultimately backed countless musicians throughout the Ozarks.
After 90 years, the banjo and a lifetime worth of Ozarks memories were suddenly silenced in May 2019, when J.R. Johnston passed away at his home near Norwood. In the grand scheme of things, the story ended just a short piece from where early chapters were written.
One of several children, J.R. grew up in Douglas County. Scenes from his early years are seen today through black-and-white photographs, if they exist, of sawmills and creek-swimming, of old-time religion, one-room schools and fiddle-fueled dance parties.
“We lived down below Drury, and went to a country school,” said J.R. “I rode a horse many a mile. I didn’t have no car.”
Like father, like son, if it meant going somewhere: When J.R.’s father went to preach, he often took shank’s ponies.
“He preached at Champion; they’d have meetings down there in the schoolhouse,” said J.R. “On over east from where we lived down there, Twin Knob, places like that. He walked. It wouldn’t bother him to walk 10, 15 miles preaching over the weekend. He was dedicated to it.”
Eventually, J.R.’s father helped build the rock church known as Pleasant Home. Like most Ozarks churches, it was set to have a cemetery. That was a fact of interest to J.R.’s grandmother.
“She got sick and told (my dad), ‘Get that built — I want to be the first buried there,’” recalled J.R. “And she was the first one buried in that cemetery.”
A lifetime lived, he’s now one of same cemetery’s most recent residents to rest in peace.
Decades ago, when life was just starting, J.R. saw his father do many types of work. There was the preaching, of course, but that didn’t pay the bills for most folks back in those days.
“My dad did a lot of sawmill (work),” he said. “Old-time saw-milling. I had to cut logs and get them in at the mill and stuff like that. And then he farmed on top of that.
“He done a little bit of everything.”
But a little of everything didn’t include listening to fiddle music.
“To him, it was the devil’s music,” said J.R.
That reality perhaps came through more clearly than the Grand Ole Opry, which was often played on the Johnstons’ radio.
“They played a lot of fiddle music, a lot more than they do now,” said J.R. “And when there was a fiddle tune, my dad thought (there would be dancing). He did not believe in dancing. And he’d make you turn it down.”
But that didn’t keep J.R. from enjoying tunes on the sly.
“I’d get real close to it, where I could hear it. He thought I turned it off.
“On Saturday night, I’d stay up and listen to it. He went to bed about eight o’clock, and I’d play it loud as long as it wasn’t playing fiddle music.”
During the week, a young J.R. went to school at Champion, where a one-room school was divided into two sections for different ages.
“Down there, they had a partition they put up, and the first four grades stayed in one room and the others in the other room,” he said. “They’ve still got the old building down there. And it’s a church house now. Outside, it looks the same as when I went to school there.”
He recalls the school days, noisy and hectic as the teacher tried to lead students of all ages.
“I don’t think I ever learned a lot,” he said. “We’s over here supposed to be a-studyin’ while she’s over here teaching, and we’d be making noise.”
Those years of schooling were the only formal education he received, a reality not too uncommon for Ozarkers of the day.
“Dad, he didn’t force me to go (to high school),” he said. “I had four brothers, and none of them got a high school education.
“I’m the only one left of the family now.”
But something he didn’t need school to learn was his continued love of music. When he was just a decade and some change, he purchased his own instrument: A fiddle, procured through mail order.
“I wanted to learn to play the fiddle,” he said. “I ordered a fiddle when I was 11 years old out of Sears Roebuck — and my brother learned to play it.”
It’s unclear of why J.R.’s brother learned to play the fiddle instead of him. But it didn’t deter his desire to learn or his presence at parties.
“I didn’t think nothing more about riding a horse 10 or 15 miles to a party back then,” he said. “I rode a horse when it’d be raining and freezing; my knees’d freeze to the saddle.”
“I didn’t try to play anything then, but I liked to hear them.”
And the fiddle came with him.
“Other people played it,” he said. “I carried it with me on the horse.”
The horse likely took him to parties, too, where young adults, often around sparkin’ age, would gather and play games. One example: Pleased or Displeased.
“The young ones would get lined up,” he said. “They’d ask somebody to be the narrator of it and go around and (ask), ‘Are you pleased or displeased?’ And maybe they’d ask Alvie. And maybe he’d say he was displeased. And then they’d say, ‘What would please you?’ And he’d say, ‘For J.R. and this girl to take a walk.’ That’s kind of the way it went.”
Eventually, J.R. made his way to Iowa where there was work. While he did play a bit in Missouri, that’s where his music talent really took off.
After finding his well-worn banjo at that hockshop, he learned more about it when a banjo player came around.
“He come up there, and they had parties up there where we stayed. He didn’t bring his banjo,” said J.R., who lent his instrument to the elder musician. “And he played it all the time he was up there. And he showed me a bit about it.”
While in Iowa, J.R. got something else that he had for the rest of his life: His wife, Janet, whom he married in 1951.
J.R. and Janet, married for 67 years.
The couple moved to Oregon in 1955 for work, where he was employed in a sawmill, but returned to the Ozarks in 1960. It’s where the couple raised their two children, and J.R. lived for the rest of his life.
Over the next nearly 60 years, J.R. became well-known for his rhythm banjoing.
“I can play any tune, but just play rhythm to it,” he said. “When I learned to play with (my brother), he had a guitar, and he was going to play in G, he’d show a G chord. And I’d just sit there and play the G chord. All he wanted was rhythm. And then my son learned to play the fiddle and that’s all he wanted was rhythm.
“So that’s how I got hooked playing rhythm,” he said with a laugh.
At some points, he also played bass with his son, Herbie, in a band that traveled throughout the Midwest. He was
“We played all over Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, up in Iowa, Illinois,” said J.R. “Then I worked, I’d come in on Friday and we’d take off and play music all weekend. I didn’t think nothing about driving 200, 300 miles then.”
Good thing he didn’t have to still take that horse to music parties or festivals, as he traveled to in several states.
“You get there a little quicker,” he said with a laugh.
He was revered for his picking, and was recognized as a pioneer of bluegrass music by the Missouri Bluegrass Preservation Association in January 2017.
“It was a surprise to me,” said J.R. of the award. “After I got that, I took it over to McClurg. I took it over and showed it to them. Just couldn’t hardly believe I got this.”
He was longtime mainstay at local music parties like McClurg and Vanzant. The former is where he joined other old-time musicians in playing old-time tunes — including friends Wayne Sutherland and the aforementioned Alvie Dooms, who also both hailed from around Champion.
J.R. at McClurg in 2016.
Did he think the old-time music would continue?
“I really hope it does,” he said. “These younger people are just not interested in it, I think.”
“There’s a few of ’em are,” piped up Janet, J.R.’s wife, who sat nearby.
“Yeah, a few of them are,” J.R. conceded. “It just all depends. It may carry on.
“But it’s guys like me are, I reckon, who kept it a-going.”
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