A TRIBUTE TO VESTA JOHNSON (1922-2021)
We were very sad to hear the news on Friday, March 5, 2021, that master old-time fiddler Vesta Johnson had died. At the same time, we understand from her devoted family that she passed peacefully after recent struggles with cancer. We are of the belief that there never has been or will be anyone like Vesta.
It is hard to know where to start with a tribute to Vesta, as we are so lucky that much of her life and her music has been documented for posterity. Certainly, there are files in Missouri Folk Arts’ collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri, as well as in our working digital files at the office. Luckily for us all, several entities have recorded Vesta playing music and telling her own story. In this tribute, we want to let Vesta speak for herself. Then, we’ll share some key tunes and recordings, and then we’ll share a few links by others (including us) sharing what we knew and learned about and from Vesta Wilson Johnson.
In her own words:
Vesta Wilson was born in 1922 and raised on a farm in Linn County, Mo. She learned to play fiddle by ear as a young child from family, including both parents. She always pointed out that fiddling was not considered appropriate for girls or women for much of her life. Vesta also explained how fiddling and community dances were a constant in her life since childhood.
She tells those stories in this five minute narrative recorded in 2012 via the Missouri Historical Society.
Vesta expanded on those memories in a 2015 interview with documentarian Abigail Nover for her Natural Rhythm project. Around the five minute mark, she answers the question: “How did you start teaching lessons?” And, in the last part of the interview, she discusses the contest fiddle circuit in the 1960s and 1970s as locations for picking up tunes: “I always said I wouldn’t give you a dime for all the contests that there was, but I wouldn’t give take a thousand dollars for the people I met.”
In ethnomusicologist Holly Hobbs‘ 2012 film Women of Old Time Music: Tradition & Change in the Missouri Ozarks, Vesta talked more about how women could be ignored in fiddling circles, and how that behavior changed over the years (33:30-37:05). *Note that Vesta herself always made it clear that she was a Northern Missouri-style fiddler, not Ozarks, though she certainly made it into films and anthologies of Ozark old-time music due to the vast repertoire of Missouri tunes she knew.
By her own ear:
Vesta herself proclaimed many times that she “can’t read a note” of printed music, and that comment is often shared in news articles. Learning to play by ear, and playing by ear, are decidedly no easy feats–nor is retaining a repertoire as vast as Vesta’s. Here is a small sampling of some recordings that have been captured by professional and amateur ethnographers over the years.
Fat Meat & Dumplings, grandson Steve Hall on guitar, Frank Blade on banjo, John Hurd on bass from MusicBox Project
Orvetta Waltz by Vesta Johnson & Steve Hall as recorded by Abigail Nover
Profiles by others:
Family is making arrangements for a life celebration, and we will share the information as it becomes available. We send love and prayers of comfort to the Johnson/Hall/Amburn family.
Published March 9, 2021 by Lisa L. Higgins