Local Current Blog

Lonnie Johnson: St. Paul author Dean Alger tells the story of an underappreciated guitar hero

Lonnie Johnson (left) in 1941. Photo by Russell Lee (Library of Congress).

There is an unsung hero at the root of much of modern rock, blues, and jazz. Blues great B.B. King called him the most influential guitarist of the twentieth century. His music laid the foundation for rock guitar heroes like Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix. Yet few people recognize his name.

This is exactly the problem that St. Paul author Dean Alger identified and hopes to change with his latest book, The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music: Lonnie Johnson, Music, and Civil Rights. The book presents the story of musician Lonnie Johnson’s life and legacy, but Alger says it is much more than a biography.

“Too many people in publishing houses tend to focus narrowly on doing a biography of an old musician,” Alger said. His book also juxtaposes musical and historical themes such as the guitar as a cultural icon and the role of blues and jazz music in the Civil Rights Movement.

Alger stumbled upon the subject of his book while reading The History of Blues by Francis Davis; that book is dedicated to the “great unwritten biography of Lonnie Johnson.” Alger took that as a challenge. He began extensive reading and research on Johnson and did interviews with famous blues legends like B.B. King and Henry Townsend.

“It’s an inspiring tale,” Alger said. “Lonnie had ups and downs and was a resilient guy. He was phenomenally influential.”

Johnson was born in New Orleans in 1899 and grew up playing music, beginning his training on the violin as a young child. He shifted to guitar when it was still considered a rhythm instrument. However, the expressive style of playing that he eventually developed helped turn the guitar into the dominant solo instrument it is today. In fact, Alger considers Johnson the founding father of the modern guitar. “Few guitarists have developed the extraordinarily expressive touch, tone, vibrato, and bent-string notes that Lonnie did,” Alger said.

Johnson first achieved professional success in the 1920s in St. Louis. “He carried himself with great dignity, [and was a] hero and role model for black folks,” Alger said. “He [and other African-American musicians] sent a message to the whole of American society: ‘We’re great artists and we deserve equality.’”

Alger will release The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music: Lonnie Johnson, Music, and Civil Rights and a companion CD on Tuesday, April 22 at the SubText bookstore in St. Paul. This will be Alger’s first stop in a book tour to cities with strong blues traditions, including Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

The release event will begin with a performance by two Twin Cities musicians, Papa John Kolstad and Harold Tremblay. They will play a small sample of Johnson’s work including “Crowing Rooster Blues” and “Tomorrow Night,” a song later covered by Elvis Presley.

“This is something that is long overdue,” Kolstad said of the book. “This is our culture and our heritage. I’m going to tell a lot of other people to read it.”

Alger will follow Kolstad and Tremblay’s performance with a discussion of key elements from his book, including Johnson’s heavy influence on Presley’s singing technique. Alger plans to use several recordings to illustrate his points.

Alger hopes readers both familiar and unfamiliar with Johnson will make it to the event. “If people want to understand twentieth century music, they should come,” he said. “The whole story is remarkable.”

Ellie Fuqua is a freshman at Macalester College. She plans to double major in international studies and media and cultural studies, and hopes to pursue journalism as a career.