As some of you may know by now, British old-time musician Keith Johnson passed away at his home in Gainsborough, England, on May 2nd, after a long, brave fight with cancer. What many American readers of the Herald may not know is that Keith was largely responsible for the very existence of the British organization FOAOTMAD (Friends Of American Old Time Music And Dance) and for the creation and growth of the Gainsborough Old Time Festival. He made a great contribution to the growing popularity of old-time music in the UK, and for British people who play or listen to much old-time music, the chances are that their reasons for doing so were influenced in some way by Keith.
Born during the Second World War and growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he built his community spirit in the shared hardships and difficulties of post-War rationing and shortages. He met his wife Brenda in 1959 and they were married four years later. They had three sons, Andrew, Paul, and Robert, who now have their own families but always remained close to Keith and Brenda. Keith made his living as an electrical engineer, and ran a business installing professional electrical security systems.
Keith was a doer and an achiever. If he decided to do something, then it was going to happen – and not by accident. He was always very keen on his community and he was very good at inspiring others to share his interests, which have been many over the years. He had memberships of several sporting organizations like the Aegir cycling club and the Gainsborough Wildfowlers Club. His big passion before old-time music was sailing. As a young father he served as the skipper of the 6th Gainsborough Sea Scouts for 15 years, and his sons called him Skip.
His life changed in the early ‘90s when he visited some of the few British bluegrass festivals and the sound of banjos penetrated his soul, so he bought a banjo and started to learn. When he got home from one festival he told Brenda that their next holiday would be in the USA, and they flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, with the intention of going to Clifftop. They didn’t make it past Fancy Gap, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge near Mount Airy, North Carolina. Responding to an ad in a local free paper they visited a large afternoon backyard session in Mount Airy at the house of Jack and Hazel Fallis. Jack was a program presenter on WPAQ, the Mount Airy radio station famous for its coverage of old-time music in the Round Peak area, and he knew many of the local musicians. The house was also a bed and breakfast accommodation and Keith and Brenda stayed there for the Old Fiddlers Convention at Galax, where he taped a session with Benton Flippen, Carlie Marion, and Alice Gerrard at the Old-Time Herald stand. They spent a lot of holiday time with Jack and Hazel over the next few years, getting to know the area and the people, especially the musicians.
In the UK, Keith had bought a banjo and went to a banjo workshop in Ripponden, Yorkshire, in November 1993, where to his astonishment he met two people who were neighbors of each other, neither of whom knew the other played the banjo! The idea of forming Foaotmad emerged from that workshop. Keith set about organizing a festival in Gainsborough in 1994, featuring Tom and Ben Paley with Sara Grey. During that weekend, Foaotmad was formed and a committee set up under the chairmanship of Guy Tucker with Keith as Secretary and Tom Paley as President. Advice and the Foaotmad logo came from John Les, who ran the successful Conwy Bluegrass Festival in North Wales. Keith left the committee in 2002 but continued to run the festival until 2011, when he and Brenda were awarded honorary life memberships of Foaotmad, a very popular decision.
Keith booked many of the American guests and put them up during their visits. He treated them as if they were family members and his kindness and consideration were much appreciated. Thanks to Keith, many great artists came to Gainsborough to perform and present workshops over the years, and formed friendships with and provided inspiration to many of our members. Keith built a small Appalachian cabin (complete with porch) on his back lawn to provide extra accommodation and picking space for guests, and many great old-time signatures can be found on the inside walls.
Keith also organized annual weekend fiddle and banjo workshops, mainly involving the great West Virginia musicians Dwight Diller and Dave Bing, who taught us many tunes by ear at various locations around Gainsborough including the legendary East Stockwith village hall. These workshops, in my opinion, raised the general standard of play through the country. People left those workshops with a much clearer idea of how old-time music should sound and feel, and with lots of first-hand inspirational stories about the great old musicians that were the sources for the tunes. Really good banjos were not easy to find in this country and, as a service to members, Keith selected and sold Cedar Mountain banjos handmade by his friend Lo Gordon of Brevard, North Carolina. He also bought and loved to play an early Dave Bing fiddle and a Dave Stacey banjo. For many years Keith would attend our summer camp at Sacrewell farm near Peterborough, an informal fun week of tunes around the campfire. He once brought Dwight Diller with him, to everyone’s delight.
Around 2005 Keith and Brenda made a second home in the Appalachians, buying and beautifully modifying a cabin in the woods near Cana, Virginia, under the Blue Ridge. They spent much time there making many friends and strengthening the musical ties between Foaotmad and the local musicians, Keith getting around on his Harley Davidson. Foaotmad members visiting the States were always welcome to use the cabin as a base, and the Johnsons were terrific hosts, installing a caravan for extra guests. I have wonderful memories of playing tunes with friends on the cabin porch on warm evenings, drinking cold beer and listening to the katydids while watching the fireflies and hummingbirds as dusk settled on the Blue Ridge.
Keith spent time in his final few years constructing and flying radio-controlled model aircraft from the garage at his home (known to the family as Hangar No 9!). He always had a very positive attitude that never failed him, and still had a twinkle in his eye at his last Gainsborough Festival this year.
Keith’s funeral at St Paul’s Church, Gainsborough, was very well attended, and tunes were played during and after the service by Foaotmad members, for which Brenda and the family expressed their appreciation and thanks.