Vesta Johnson - Matriarch of Missouri Fiddling

Like so many others affected by the passing of Vesta Johnson I'm still trying to process, reflect, and put into words just how much her friendship over the years has meant to me.

I first met Vesta in 1991 when I attended the Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp for the first time at the age of 9.  Vesta had been a fixture of this camp since the beginning in the mid-1980's.  She was one of the very few instructors who could take on a new player and turn them into a fiddler in under a week.  

Never one to mince words or keep you wondering what she was thinking, I want to share a story.  I was a teenager attending camp by then; more interested in chasing girls, acting a fool, and just being a raucous teenage boy.  At the end of the week our parents would all come for the Friday evening fish fry and students performance in the Colony Barn.  Vesta, Bob Holt, and Pete McMahan sat my parents down at the end of the evening and expressed their concern that I hadn't been taking advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me throughout the week.  

Vesta told my parents,
"You couldn't cut that boys head open and pour a tune in it. He just doesn't get it."

Years later Vesta swore that she never said that and that my Dad had been exaggerating.  Either way that changed my attitude and drive.  I never wanted the folks that I looked up to during my childhood to think that I was just a rabble-rouser and not interested in what they were trying to teach me.  

I've been fortunate to teach along side Vesta almost every summer since 2000 in Bethel, Missouri.  This special lady has played such an important part in me becoming the musician I am today and I am still at a loss for words after her passing.  There are so many people who have better eulogized Vesta and her influence since her passing a few days ago.  There's a hole in all of our hearts who knew and loved her but we're all so thankful for the time we had.

My good friend Kenny Applebee graciously loaned me a cassette recording over the weekend from a jam session he had with Vesta in 1987.  I've digitized it and cleaned it up the best I could but this tape has been played countless times over the last 34 years (rightly so, it's fantastic).  The quality isn't what it once was but the music those two played that night is amazing.  The following file is one continuous audio track as it was recorded back in '87.  I know y'all will love it just as much as me.  (Click the underscored text below to download the MP3.)

Vesta Johnson & Kenny Applebee 11.28.1987 

I will never be able to find the right words to describe just how much I thought of Vesta and how lucky I've been to have known her for three decades.  Thankful.  Thankful for her friendship, the lessons, and her absolute honesty.  Everyone who knew you loved you, Vesta. 

Thanks to everyone who follows this blog and enjoys the music.  Please feel free to share the albums and music, this has been my goal from the start.  This is but a part of what keeps this tradition we love alive.  

John P. Williams


  1. What a beautiful tribute to the special lady we loved so much. And thank you for sharing the recording from 1987. She sounds so strong and solid. I truly miss sitting and playing with her and her great sense of humor.


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