Thursday, February 8, 2018

Louise Johnson (1908 to late 1940s?)

Son House and unidentified woman in the 1930s Delta
The fourth artist at the famous August 1930 Paramount recording session, alongside Charley Patton, "Son" House and Willie Brown, was Louise Johnson. Not until David Evans interviewed House in November 1964 was her name linked to the session. The pianist on her sides had long been thought to be Cripple Clarence Lofton, but House's recollection was quite clear:

"Son" House: Yeah. Me, Charley Patton, Willie Brown — no, there was four of us. And another girl named Louise Johnson, she played piano.  
David Evans: By herself?  
SH: By herself
DE: Did she sing?
SH: She singed and played. On about one or two of her songs, me and Charley, we commented a little bit with the guitar while she played the piano.
DE: Were these recorded?
SH: Yeah, she was recording, yes.
DE: Oh, with you and Charley in the background.

House remembered Johnson as about twenty-three or twenty-four years old, and Charley Patton's mistress. "She didn't do nothin' but drink and play music; she didn't work for nobody." House added that Willie Brown knew Johnson when she was playing at a place on the Kirby plantation, run by a woman named Liney or Liny Armstrong, who also owned a restaurant in Memphis, where she lived.3 A Linie Armstrong, aged forty, is listed in the 1930 Tunica County (Beat 1) census of April 18, farming and living with her forty-five-year-old brother, James, and a "roomer," Kittie Jones. Many "juke houses" were simply actual houses, with one or more rooms permanently or temporarily used as venues for entertainment. (David Evans saw a place like this on Dockery's, before they tore it down.) Armstrong seems, therefore, to have been farming and running a juke joint on the side.

Joe Kirby's plantation was right above Robinsonville, along Highway 61. The 1920 Tunica County census refers to it as "John A. Kirby plantation, Clack." House referred to it as Claxton or Clack Store. (In 1941, he recorded at the store in Clack for the Library of Congress.) 
"Kirby's plantation was our stomping ground. That's where we drank all that bad corn whiskey. That's where I got Louise Johnson at. She lived on that place. And that's why she got to go with me, and Willie and Charley to go to Grafton to make records, playing piano. Charley made up a song on Joe Kirby, because he played there a lot and because of the corn whiskey."

As well as playing on the Kirby plantation, Louise may have visited Memphis; the lyrics of "On The Wall" mention the Monarch saloon, owned by Jim Kinnane, and Church's Hall.' "On The Wall" also suggests that Louise Johnson may have turned tricks in brothels. The vocal support by Patton, House and Brown during the song is intended to recreate the atmosphere of a saloon or a whorehouse. Johnson may have picked up some of her piano technique in such establishments, but most of it — the hammered right-hand chords, the grumbling single-note and walking bass lines, the way she plays the turnarounds in the last bar — is pure Mississippi.

On April 1, 1930 a Louise Johnson (occupation: "none") was enumerated at 1 South Street West in Tunica, Tunica County, Mississippi. She was listed as having been born in 1908 in Tennessee, which was also her parents' place of birth. This seems to agree with pianist John "Piano Red" Williams' account of the Louise Johnson he knew in Tunica in the late 1920s: a small woman, aged about twenty, who played the piano in a joint attached to the cotton-oil mill quarters.' Red also claimed to have seen her at the Kirby plantation in the early 1930s.7

Although it has been reported that the male members of the party picked up Louise Johnson from Joe Kirby's plantation on the way to Grafton,' in his interview with the late Al Wilson "Son" House mentioned that Patton picked up Willie Brown and Louise Johnson, who both lived just north of Robinsonville, to practice new songs at his home in Lula the night before they left to go north. Brown already knew Louise, and suggested that she come with them. After practicing all night, they were picked up by Wheeler Ford, who had a car and knew the way, because he had already recorded in Grafton with the Delta Big Four. From Lula, they traveled via Memphis Tennessee, through Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, where they passed through Cairo, (where House and Patton bought new guitars, and Patton and Brown got into a fight), Kankakee (because Wheeler Ford wanted to visit a guitar-playing friend), and Rockford (a detour to allow House to see the John Deere tractor factory) en route to Grafton.

The trip became as legendary as the recording session itself. With "Son" House in the front seat next to Wheeler Ford, Patton, Brown and Louise Johnson sat in the back. Their drinking led to a row between Brown and Patton, just after they had left Cairo. With the car traveling at sixty-five miles an hour, Patton tried to open the door, causing Ford to make an abrupt stop. Brown and Patton jumped out to settle the argument with their fists, and Patton tripped, fell on his new guitar, and smashed it. Back in the car, Patton got into an argument with Louise and slapped her in the face, which led her to transfer her affections to "Son" House, with whom she ended up sharing a room at Grafton's Bienlein Hotel.

Louise Johnson recorded in F and B flat, the latter a key seldom used by blues pianists at that time. She did not use the more common keys of C and G, which indicates that, when learning to play, she was not exposed to the work of many other pianists. The most interesting aspect of her playing on "All Night Long Blues," "Long with From Home" and "By The Moon And Stars" is that, after one or two choruses with a single-note bass line, she switches to a walking bass and picks up speed, eventually doubling the tempo. This changing of the bass lines is otherwise unknown in recorded piano blues of the 1920s and 1930s, and is certainly not due to her oft_ reported nervousness; it seems rather to be a conscious, and very effective element of her style.

After her Paramount session, which resulted in two released records, and an alternative take of "All Night Long Blues," which survived to be released on LP and CDs, Louise Johnson may have moved to Stacy, Arkansas; "Son" House said that she did so about three weeks after their shared recording session. House never saw her again, but his recollection was that she died in the 1940s from natural causes. (In 1940, when "Son" House was on Simpson Tate's Plantation near Highway 3 in Banks, Mississippi, there was a Louise Johnson living a few doors away from him, but she was a widow aged thirty-eight, and House never mentioned her in interviews; it seems unlikely — but not impossible — that she was the blues pianist who was also his former lover.)

It should be added that the memories of Leroy Willis, from Helena, Arkansas, suggest Louise Johnson may have lived longer than House believed. Willis recalled in 1967 that:
Louise Johnson played around Rich, near Jonestown in the 1930s. She was always by herself She was a heavy-sized, brown-skinned woman. She was in her twenties. She got attached with another woman, called "Piano Playing Willie," some called her "Piano Playing Bill." She is in Memphis now. When I first come to know Willie she was living down at Lula. She lived there until around 1950. Louise Johnson used to run with her. They played together a whole summer. She played in Rich, Lula and Dundee. Charley Reynolds, he was from up here. He played with Louise Johnson from up here to Rich and she played at his place in Dundee. "Piano Playing Willie" left with her around 1950. Willie put some sort of club up down there in Memphis, Tennessee. Willie was from Dundee and had a daughter living in Mattson. She is living with Mr. Roy Flowers.


1 For a history of the controversy, see Konrad Nowakowski. "Did Lofton Claim to Have Recorded with Louise Johnson?" Names & Numbers 64 (January 2013): pp. 13-17.
2 David Evans. Interview with "Son" House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 4, 1964.

3 Nick Perls. "Son House Interview, Part One." 78 Quarterly 1 (1967): p. 61.

4 John Fahey, Barry Hansen and Mark Levine. Interview with "Son" House, Venice, California. May 7, 1965. Cassette Ft 2809. Courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

5 "Church's Hall" is the Church Auditorium, built in Church Park, Memphis, by African_ American millionaire Robert Church Sr. It seems to have become a favored place fo assignations. For the Church family, as both crime bosses and civil rights activists, see Preston Lauterbach. Beale Street Dynasty. W .W . Norton (2015).

6 Bengt Olsson. Memphis Blues. London: Studio Vista, 1970: p. 80.

7. Michael Hortig. Interview with John "Piano Red" Williams, November 1981. Email from Michael Hortig, January 26, 2016.

8 See e.g. Daniel Beaumont. Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011: p. 61.

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