Earl Johnson

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1927)

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This set presents the first half of Earl Johnson's complete recordings with his Dixie Entertainers and, on the later tracks, his Clodhoppers. Recorded in 1927, these tracks are wonderful sides by an excellent, absurd entertainer whose wild fiddling and frenzied falsetto vocals reveal a substantial debt to Gid Tanner, the most famous of the crazy Georgia fiddlers. While Johnson borrows freely from Tanner's style and repertoire, descending occasionally into pure imitation, the body of his work reveals him ultimately as a fine, distinctive, and creative performer in his own right, backed by an able -- and equally frantic -- band. Easily rivaling Tanner's maniacal personality and performance, Johnson fiddles like a lunatic on the outskirts of a burning city, the instrument screeching and squealing its way through the high parts of one tune after another. His takes on such standards as "John Henry," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," and "Shortenin' Bread" keep the old pieces immensely fresh and exciting, as if they were being played for the first time; certainly they have seldom been played with such urgency. The bands also exhibit a skillfully controlled madness on such pieces as their driving "I Get My Whiskey from Rockingham" and the hilarious "Ain't Nobody's Business." For some listeners, Johnson's sound, with its screeches and lack of restraint, may be an acquired taste never quite acquired, and certainly a few of the performances on this set are wholly unspectacular; his eclectic approach, serious talent, and sheer enthusiasm, however, rank him as one of the most engaging and essential figures of early old-time music, and his best work is included here. Despite a few moments of weakness, this collection is an excellent introduction to Earl Johnson and should satisfy the needs of most listeners; for the collector who wants it all, though, Document has also provided a second volume.

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