I learned, from a BHO friend in England, that Keith Johnson, the founder of Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance (FOAOTMAD), passed away on 2 May 2015.
I first learned about Mr. Johnson and his dedication to old time music in the course of researching my biography of Dwight Diller. In the late 1990s Dwight Diller began traveling to England to teach banjo retreats and play at a variety of folk venues in the company of fellow West Virginian Dave Bing, with whom he produced the CD In England in 1999.
The annual trips to England were important moments for Dwight.
The years of annual travel to England to conduct workshops and from time to time concertize in small pub settings were unique travel experiences and provided Dwight with distinctive teaching opportunities and the chance to exert influence and shape a completely different old time music community. Nick Pilley recalled:
Dwight met with Keith Johnson who founded our organization, Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance, FOATMAD, and came over both to give workshops (with Dave Bing) and also to appear at the organization’s annual old time festival in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, Keith Johnson's hometown.The workshops were held from 1999 to 2004.The one in 1999 was in December but others were November. He was unable to make 2005 when he was recovering from a car accident. With the exception of the first one that ran from 4 to 7 December, these were two weekends apart, the first for beginners and the second for intermediate. For example, in 2000 that would have been 18th-20th and 24th-26th November. In December 1999 Dwight performed at the Trinity Arts Centre in Gainsborough and he was a guest at the Gainsborough Old Time Music and Dance Festival in February 1998, 1999, and 2004.
FOAOTMAD organizer Keith Johnson appeared to have sought the advice and guidance of several American musicians in 1995 at the Galax Fiddlers Convention regarding old time musicians in the United States who would be willing to commit to an annual banjo retreat in the United Kingdom. Old time fiddler Betty Vornbrock and her guitarist husband Billy Cornette, who themselves were performing in England as early as 1996, recalled the difference Dwight made: in the mid-1990’s, they heard a handful of banjo players capable of “good, clean melody lines and timing, who knew their way around the neck.” Just several years later, after a year or two of Dwight’s annual lessons, they began to hear more rhythm, push and drive in the music of old time banjo players in England. Vornbrock stated, sixteen years later, that after a couple of those annual teaching gigs of Dwight’s in the England: “We could hear a vast improvement. [. . .] it had become obvious that Dwight's insistence on embodying the beat and bringing it into the right hand had transformed the players - they were now striving for that elusive thing about old time music: how to make it move.”
Dwight enjoyed his teaching work in England. He was keenly focused on way he had to quickly learn to read "cultural messages," as he put it, and the adjustments necessary to interact socially in England, and he remained acutely interested in those "messages" and mused about them for many years after he was compelled, for reasons of health, to end his annual trips to England. He thought the teaching experience in England was vastly different than the retreats he conducted in the US: highly collegial, much more relaxed, more homogeneous student populations perhaps because of the unifying influence of FOAOTMAD.
RIP Keith Johnson.
Condolences to the UK family and friends of Mr. Johnson.
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