Herman Johnson

The National Fiddler Hall of Fame



Herman Johnson


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Herman Johnson (born in 1920 Sparks, Oklahoma) Herman grew up the youngest child in a family of fourteen children. As Herman tells the story, his father, grandfather and uncles all played the fiddle. However, Herman's father was very protective of his fiddle, an old Stainer he kept hidden behind the family organ, and the children were not allowed to play with it. One day when Herman's father was away Herman talked his mother into letting him give the instrument a try. Herman, around eight years old at the time, began secretly playing it whenever he could, and remembers the first tune he learned as "Great Big Taters and Sandy Land". Herman and his mother kept the venture a secret, then one day, when some uncles and family members were visiting and jamming together, Herman's mother announced to those present "we've got another fiddler in the family". His uncle replied "well, we want to hear him play if he's a fiddler" - from that day on Herman was always a welcome and active player in all the family jam sessions.

Eventually, Herman and his brothers formed a group called the Johnson Boys featuring Herman and his brother Cecil playing twin fiddles. Herman's brother Cecil was also a very talented fiddle player in his own right. Bob Wills was a big inspiration in Herman's life and Herman was part of many western swing groups in the 1940's including "Herman and the Melodiers", the "Oklahoma Ragtimers" and "The Harmony Boys" in Sherman, Texas. At one time Herman served as band leader in a twelve piece ensemble. Herman was proud to serve in the Army in the mid 1940's where he often played for the troops in Germany where he was stationed. After the Army, Herman left the life of a professional musician behind to better provide for and spend more time with his family. However, he never lost his love for playing the fiddle and continued to play with friends, at local jam sessions and around the house. The kitchen became his favorite place to play in his home, a kitchen which he affectionately calls "Studio K" because it has the best acoustics in the house. Herman also loved to compete in fiddle competitions.

Herman became attracted to fiddle contests while still quite young, participating in his first one at the age of twelve. Fiddle contests in the United States date back to 1736. It is not uncommon to find over 300 fiddlers at one competition and the contests often attract ten thousand or more spectators. Every age, the undiscovered and the well known all show up to play and compete. And Herman Johnson is definitely one of the greatest of all time. To quote another legendary competitor, "when Herman showed up you knew you were playing for second place". Some of Herman's compositions, including the popular "Herman's Rag", are commonly used in contests across the country as a measure to see who can play the best.

Herman continued to compete in fiddle contests from time to time and around 1960 started traveling often to contests in Oklahoma and Texas with guitarist and dear friend Ralph McGraw. In 1968, Herman and Ralph took their first trip to Weiser, Idaho to compete in the National Championship there. There were over 300 other fiddle players. Herman won the championship that year for the first time at the age of 48. He went on to win the championship another four times and today still holds the record as the only person to be undefeated in the event. Herman was known among his peers at Weiser for his calm demeanor and flawless delivery. When asked in an interview what Herman loved most about Weiser he said "the people ... everybody was so nice, the whole town came out for the contest ... it was just like going home".

Herman Johnson has also won the Oklahoma State Championship five times, the Grand Master Fiddler Championship in Nashville, Tennessee and the World Championship in Crocket, Texas. Herman played just about every contest in Texas at one time or another. Herman's success in Texas started out slowly. Then one day Sleepy Johnson told Herman "we don't consider you an outsider, we think you are one of us". After that, Herman's fortune in Texas improved and he began winning frequently in the Texas competitions too. Some of the fiddlers Herman competed against in Texas included Benny Thomasson, Shorty Chancellor, Louis Franklin, Sleepy Johnson, and Major Franklin.

But Herman Johnson is known by his fellow fiddle championship contestants as more than just a great fiddle player, he is also known for being a gracious competitor, a sharp dresser, a generous mentor, and always willing to stop and help a young aspiring fiddle player learn a new lick or two.

Many great fiddle players today will tell you that Herman was one of the strongest influences in their playing and many even learned to play or fine tuned their fiddle playing skills by listening to Herman's albums. Some aspiring fiddle players have even traveled over a thousand miles to learn directly from Herman himself. It is said that all of Herman's students have gone on to play professionally.

In a recent interview, when Herman was asked what he loved most about the fiddle, he replied, "I think a fiddle or a violin is the greatest instrument in the world, it can be used so many ways, you can use this with about any kind of music ... four strings, and you get so much out of them".

Today, at the age of 92, Herman has retired from playing in fiddle competitions but continues to enjoy the fiddle, mentoring young musicians and playing with friends.

Herman Johnson was inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in 2012.

Herman Johnson Hall of Fame Introduction


Herman Johnson Master Fiddler. Dir. Lisa LaFortune. Perf. Jim Blair, Ed Carnes, Jake Duncan, Bob Fjeldsted, Larry Franklin, Howard Harris, Janna Jae, Herman Johnson, Jimmy Mattingly. National Fiddler Hall Of Fame, Apr. 2012. Web.

Orme, Jeanine Rabe. Herman Johnson Master Fiddler: 39 Solos by America's Legendary Fiddler. N.p.: Melbay Publications, 1999. Print.