Many people know Craig Johnson for his sterling work with Washington's own Double Decker String Band, one of this country's best old-timey bands. But on Thursday, Johnson will step into the House of Musical Traditions with the strings (fiddle, banjo and guitar) but without a band for a solo concert of "Southern Appalachian music and some of the things I've written."
His original songs, which have been recorded by Jim Ringer, Sandy and Caroline Patton, Art Thieme and others, are "in a traditional vein. I think they come out sounding like old songs, but I don't try and write them--in terms of content or the way they're phrased--so that they sound exactly like old ones. I don't write 'sentimental old songs.' "
Some of his songs are about "the folks who moved up from Tennessee and Kentucky to work in the auto plants and the bomber plants of Michigan during World War II. I grew up in the middle of that: My family came up earlier, during the '20s, but for the same kinds of reasons. Up there, you were an 'immigrant' if you were from Kentucky or from Southern Indiana, just across the river. When I grew up, my family tried to remain aloof from it as if they were somehow different, but they were every bit as much immigrants as anyone else in those parts."
As a child, Johnson was surrounded by traditional music, but "I didn't recognize what I was growing up in the middle of until long after I'd left it. I'd sung folk songs all my life without knowing what they were," a cultural parallel to racial memory.
The turning point was a Woody Guthrie record. "I'd never heard anything that sounded quite so different, so I started digging. And when I went to college and found out that some of the old people were still alive, that's when I discovered that some of the things I liked best were what was known as traditional music, that's when I started playing 'old-timey music.' Now anything I write, I feel it has to be at least 50 percent as good as 'My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains' or something."