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Oct 20, 2023 - 11:44:14 AM
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7098 posts since 6/27/2009

Sometimes you hear a pretty tune with a familiar name associated with it.  So it was when I heard Orvetta Waltz in the repertoire of Missouri fiddler Vesta Johnson (1922- 2021).  I knew she was a respected, talented fiddler, but I yet had very little information.  

 

My first introduction to Vesta Johnson's music was through two tune books I was excited to get – Ozarks Fiddle Music by Drew Beisswenger and Gordon McCann and Now That’s a Good Tune, Masters of Missouri Fiddling produced and edited by Howard Marshall, Vivian Williams and Phil Williams.  The latter book comes with two CDs and it had four tunes played by her, including Orvetta Waltz.  Here she is, playing the tune on the Field Recorders' Collective site, recorded by BHO member Brendan Doyle.  For a thorough collection of interviews, music, and a description of Vesta's life, see the tribute on the Missouri Folk Arts Program site. 

 

In this Vesta Johnson interview, she relates a childhood life that sounds like the proverbial “good old days,” before most people had cars.  Social life for the family was the treasured time on Saturday evenings to relax from the rigorous work of farm life at the local house dances. 

 

She was born Vesta Juanita Wilson, raised in North Missouri (which she pronounced “Missoura”), and began playing fiddle at seven years old with the encouragement of her uncle.  Golden Slippers was one of her first tunes.  She remembers having no electricity and making toys. The family raised their own food; chores were shared by all, including working after school.  

 

Both parents played fiddle and her father played at the Saturday dances with a guitarist.  Vesta admits that women weren’t actually supposed to play fiddle, but could play guitar and sing.  Recorders were rare and Vesta only remembers Bob Christenson having one.  She learned by ear and never read music.  When Vesta married, she had no more time to fiddle until her children were in high school.  Attending fiddle contests in the 60’s and 70’s later became a means to socialize and share tunes.  She taught fiddle through the Traditional Arts Program out of the University of Missouri in Columbia for 28 years and also taught at Bethel for over 30 years.  At the end of this interview, Vesta felt that at one time old-time music had seemed to have died out due to the prevalance of other activities, as well as to the lack of contact the young generation had with musicians, but that after skipping a generation, it was coming back.

 

Recorded in March of 2021, listen now to the smooth fiddle of Paul Kirk, Jr. playing Orvetta Waltz.  Paul chose it for one of his own TOTWs, #142 (BTW, it’s worthwhile to check out more of his videos and his Patreon page).  He also described the life of Vesta Johnson in these extensive notes beneath his YouTube video: 

 

“In honor of Women's History Month and as a tribute, this week's tune is Orvetta Waltz from the playing of Missouri fiddler Vesta Juanita Wilson Johnson (10 May 1922--05 March 2021). Her father's family had been in Missouri for many generations. Her mother's ancestors, who were originally from Virginia, settled in Missouri after living in Kentucky and Ohio…. Vesta married Stephen Finley Johnson (13 April 1917--10 June 1993) on 01 September 1940, and stopped playing fiddle to raise her family. After that, in the 1960s, she started playing again for dances and socials. In 1974 she and her husband started an organization called the ‘Missouri Fiddlers and Country Music Association’ to address the growing interest in the music. In time she became a Missouri State Fiddle Champion, a Master Fiddler for the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in Missouri, and a teacher, performer, and recording artist with her grandson Steve Hall who accompanied her on guitar. (source: public documents and Beisswenger and McCann).

 

 “Ms. Johnson appeared in an anthology of Missouri fiddle music, ‘I'm Old, But I'm Awfully Tough’ in the early 1970s, as well as a 1989 anthology, 'Now That's a Good Tune.'...

 

“Though I did not have the pleasure of knowing Ms. Johnson, I think this quote gives some idea of the person she was: ‘I'd never give you a dime for all the contests there was, but I wouldn't take a thousand dollars for the people I met.’” I agree with you, Paul – that’s a classically wonderful statement about Vesta’s appreciation for people in her music world.

 

There’s another tune with the same title published before 1900.  It isn’t the same melody, though some people hear a relationship.  In the Traditional Tune Archive this story is related: "A popular and much published waltz by this name [1] was composed by E.B. Spencer and published in Boston by Oliver Ditson Company, Washington Street, in 1879, however, it is a different melody than the 'Orvetta Waltz' Missouri fiddler Vesta Johnson plays. (See 'Orvetta Waltz (2)'' for the Spencer piece and listen to it here. ) Missouri fiddler Charlie Walden says Johnson told him she learned the melody as a girl in Chillicothe, Livingston County, Mo., but had no title for it. Later she heard a pianist friend play it from sheet music that had the title "Orvetta Waltz," which is what she called it thereafter.”  (The original 1879 sheet music is in the footnote link [1] found in the above quote.  It must have been different sheet music played by the piano that Vesta was listening to when she adopted the title to the tune she knew.)

 

Though the tune is in the key of G and has an octave and a half range, I found open G tuning was not nearly so easy to play as double C tuned down on a cello banjo, dGDGA, equivalent to playing in G.  

 

I can imagine it being played as a fiddle contest waltz tune – it’s such a pretty tune -- though we know Vesta preferred jams and people to competition.  Perhaps she actually played it for a dance.

 

Vesta Johnson, here at age 96, playing Orvetta Waltz beginning at 2:40.


Edited by - JanetB on 10/20/2023 11:50:02

Oct 20, 2023 - 12:18:51 PM
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RG

USA

3251 posts since 8/7/2008

Always enjoy a good waltz and this one's a beauty! Vesta Johnson has always been one of my favorite Missouri fiddlers, and she had such great tunes, and as usual your version is a beauty as well. Thanks for posting this one Janet!

Oct 21, 2023 - 10:09:08 AM

1078 posts since 3/23/2006

Great waltz and a wonderful story. But without a cello banjo I'll have to work out a setting in a G tuning. It'll be worth it. Thanks, Janet!

Oct 21, 2023 - 10:56:49 AM

130 posts since 4/4/2021

quote:
Originally posted by hweinberg

Great waltz and a wonderful story. But without a cello banjo I'll have to work out a setting in a G tuning. It'll be worth it. Thanks, Janet!


gCGCD/aDADE works nicely with Janet's tab for us non-cello owners.

Oct 21, 2023 - 11:00:48 AM

1078 posts since 3/23/2006

But my fiddler will be in G.

Oct 21, 2023 - 12:46:15 PM
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7098 posts since 6/27/2009

quote:
Originally posted by hweinberg

But my fiddler will be in G.


Here's an arrangement in open G tuning which may be a bit difficult with its up-the-neck fretting.  It also jumps octaves back and forth to get the melody.  You can adapt it to accompany your fiddler and not need to get all the notes the way I do, like the skipped notes and extra eighth notes copied from Vesta Johnson. Since I play solo at home mostly, I usually strive for the fiddler's melody, but many banjo players know how to be minimalists and get just enough to complement the fiddler.  In a duet I think that's what counts and hope you find a happy medium that works for you.  


Oct 22, 2023 - 9:45:23 AM

130 posts since 4/4/2021

quote:
Originally posted by hweinberg

But my fiddler will be in G.


I see.  My apologies; I misunderstood!

Oct 23, 2023 - 1:03:05 AM
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6277 posts since 3/11/2006

Nice waltz.  I included it on my "Old Bluetick" recording with my brother on accordion.

Oct 23, 2023 - 1:05:15 AM

6277 posts since 3/11/2006

Nice waltz. I included it on my "Old Bluetick" recording with my brother on accordion.

Oct 23, 2023 - 7:49:56 AM

1712 posts since 4/29/2013

quote:
Originally posted by hweinberg

Great waltz and a wonderful story. But without a cello banjo I'll have to work out a setting in a G tuning. It'll be worth it. Thanks, Janet!


You could try gCGCD tuning, capo 7 for G (dGDGA, an octave higher than Janet's cello banjo and the same fingering), granted you may or may not have a spike or capo to raise the fifth to D, so you could leave it at G.

Oct 23, 2023 - 9:17:07 AM
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1078 posts since 3/23/2006

quote:
Originally posted by JanetB
quote:
Originally posted by hweinberg

But my fiddler will be in G.


Here's an arrangement in open G tuning which may be a bit difficult with its up-the-neck fretting.  It also jumps octaves back and forth to get the melody.  You can adapt it to accompany your fiddler and not need to get all the notes the way I do, like the skipped notes and extra eighth notes copied from Vesta Johnson. Since I play solo at home mostly, I usually strive for the fiddler's melody, but many banjo players know how to be minimalists and get just enough to complement the fiddler.  In a duet I think that's what counts and hope you find a happy medium that works for you.  


Thanks, Janet.  I'm also going to try (g)DADE capoed up 5 frets leaving the 5th on g. Your tabs are much appreciated.

Oct 25, 2023 - 5:53:54 PM

7098 posts since 6/27/2009

More video discoveries of Orvetta Waltz -- check out the mandolin and cello versions, but no other banjo voicings were found.

 

Edited by - JanetB on 10/25/2023 17:54:09

Nov 21, 2023 - 4:41:52 PM
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61 posts since 9/3/2013

Thank you Janet. Lovely tune. You are always an inspiration!

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