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A music-filled life

“I had a great aunt years ago who had a saying…people ask me how I’m doing and I say ‘I’m still kicking but I’m not raising much dust.’”

Berge Johnson, of Spicer, plays a violin, one of the many instruments he plays on a regular basis. Johnson has been playing and teaching music since he was about 5. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

Berge Johnson, of rural Spicer, said he feels kind of the same way. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and that’s not his only accomplishment. He’s a musician, starting what became his career at age five, and one he continues to pursue today.

The octogenarian said his parents told him when he was quite young he could whistle songs.

“My earliest memory is when my grandfather used to kind of show me off as his trained monkey or something, and he’d ask me to whistle for people, so I did that.”

His mother had a piano, and at quite an early age, he used to go to the piano and actually plunk out some songs. At age five his mom started giving him piano lessons from a teacher. He took piano lessons until about the fourth-grade.

Johnson was born in St. Cloud, where they lived on a farm about a mile and a half south of town. He attended the campus lab school of St. Cloud Teacher’s College which is where all the student teachers did their student teaching. One advantage of going there was having the college music teachers as their elementary school music teachers.

“I was the boy soprano for quite a long time, and in 6th-grade, a college choir director wrote for me a special part to go with Silent Night, and I got to sing that with the college choir.”

In fourth-grade they had the opportunity to start on a stringed instrument or a band instrument.

“My grandmother had this old violin at the time so I started playing that. It was too big for me, but I grew into it.” In fourth, fifth and sixth-grades he had an opportunity to play violin, and in 6th-grade they were short of string players at college so the music instructor at the time asked Johnson to play second string with the college. “As a sixth-grader I got to do that.”

Johnson continued playing in 7th-grade because the band director happened to be a violinist. “There was no string program in the entire district at the time, but I managed to have violin lessons through 7th-grade. Then in 8th-grade the band director moved away, and the new band director was not a string player. I wanted to continue playing, but my parents didn’t have money to buy me an instrument so I borrowed a school baritone horn and that was the first instrument I played.”

He decided in 9th-grade he was going to be a band director. In the 10th-grade he started playing trumpet. He said his oldest brother paid $10 for this trumpet in a pawn shop in Minneapolis. “Unfortunately, the horn was not worth what he paid for it and so my parents, who were having a very rough time, agreed to buy me a new instrument.”

He had his choice of a new King Trumpet for $175, or a one-year old Martin Committee trumpet for $150. “I chose that one to save my parents $25. They paid for it on time. I did play that instrument through high school and four years of college, then went back to St. Cloud, and some years later, I found out that the Martin Committee was a very desirable instrument.” He had the instrument restored and today that instrument is worth about 20 to 30 times what his parents paid.

While in high school his band director gave him lessons on various instruments, so he did learn about percussion instruments, and the brasses, primarily the trombone, tuba and French horn. “When I got to college I had a fairly good working knowledge of all the brass and percussion instruments, but the woodwind instruments were ones I needed to learn in order to become a band director so I concentrated on those.”

His college advisor was the music teacher he had in elementary school, and of course, the orchestra was still short of instruments so he asked Johnson to play violin in the orchestra. “I tried to explain that I hadn’t really played it since 8th-grade but that didn’t make any difference. I ended up being the first freshman in college history to play in the band, choir and orchestra in the first quarter at St. Cloud State in 1956.”

After playing in the college band and orchestra and singing in the choir, he started playing with some dance bands while he was in college. He and his best friend played in a band from St. Joseph, Minnesota, which started out as the Magic Hearts. “That name wasn’t really exciting so that band became known as Tony Wolf and the Deutschmeisters. We played a lot of old-time waltzes, polkas and schottisches and a lot of wedding dances primarily around the St. Cloud area.” He said playing with that group went a long way toward paying for his college. “We were paid $10 a night for our playing – as an hourly wage it was not very high, but it helped out quite a bit.”

Berge Johnson all dressed up and ready to play a trombone. Contributed photo

After he graduated from college in 1960, he taught at Brooten. At that time they had no marching band, but they did have a girls’ drum and bugle corp. The girls would play primarily in the summer. He said they practiced twice a week and in June and July would average 10 parades a month. While in Brooten, he said, the girls’ drum and bugle corp, which had been started in 1938, the year he was born, died in 1965, the year he left. “Today I have two of the original bugles from that group. I have fond memories of the girls’ drum and bugle corp.”

After that the school consolidated with Belgrade and they started having a marching band, including the boys.

When he was teaching at Brooten, the district they were in went to the same music contest as Willmar and some of the bigger schools around there. “In 1964, the director from Willmar heard our little Brooten band, was quite impressed with it, and asked me if I would like to come and teach in Willmar. Of course, that being a much bigger school system, I agreed.” Unfortunately, Johnson said, he had already signed a contract, and he had to spend an additional year in Brooten because they wouldn’t release him from his contract. “Willmar agreed to hold the job open for a whole year. I felt very honored and fortunate to be able to do that.”

He moved to Willmar in 1965 and at that time met his wife, Peggy. “Both of us had similar Norwegian backgrounds, and we were at a meeting for beginning teachers. I happened to glance over at her and discovered she and I had the same middle name, Lynn, which was a bit unusual. That was the start of a romance. Fifty-two years later we’re still together.”

Johnson said he had a lot of different groups in Willmar and primarily was hired for junior high band, 8th and 9th-grade. At that time there were seven different elementary schools, including Kandiyohi and Blomkest, that were outside the district, but it was the job of the music people to go to those schools. “I did an awful lot of traveling, had the senior high pep band for ball games, and the marching band was quite busy with a lot of school activities. At the same time, I continued to play outside of the school. I played with the college orchestra, which later became a community orchestra. I played with the community band, played in the original barn theater when it was really a barn, played for many different musicals throughout the years including the barn theater where it is now.”

His primary instrument at that time was the trumpet. In addition to playing in those groups, he played with some dance bands. “We had a wonderful group which was called the Early Times Band which performed mainly around the Willmar area. I played with them about 7 1/2 years. I was primarily base guitar and would sing second vocal parts, but I also played trumpet, clarinet, trombone, and we had a base trumpet which we modified, and I actually figured out a way to make it sound like a tuba.”

He also played with Burt Lundberg, one of the pillars of the music industry. “Burt is close to 100 years old and lives in New London. He was the band director at the school there. He is still playing. For three years I played with Burt and a couple of other people at the Westwood Inn on Green Lake. We played up until the unfortunate fire when it burned down.”

The community started a big band patterned after the Glen Miller-type bands, and Willmar had a dredge with which they were digging the mulch out of Foot Lake. “The person in charge of this band came up with an amazing name. They called it the Foot Lake Dredge. It later came to be called the Mill Pond Jazz Orchestra. Today some of the players are playing in a group that goes by that name.” He said they also had a brass quintet. “Our membership changed throughout the years, but we played together for many years, known as the City Brass, and still have friends that play in that group.”

Johnson said he has always loved brass music and has made a number of CDs. The first one happened as a result of his listening to Minnesota Public Radio in the car. “I heard this group and was able to remember the name of the music composer and the group that performed until I got home and then I Googled them and was able to buy the music and brought it to our brass group.” It proved to be a bit of a stretch for the brass group, Johnson said. He decided he could do that entirely on his own, and he did. He played two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone and tuba. With the help of Brian Pearson, the band director in New London, who has a recording studio, they were able to record one part and add the others and make all of the changes necessary to eliminate mistakes. “It’s possible for one person to sound quite good. That was the first CD I made and that happened when I was 65 years old. The second CD was one that my wife asked for. She said the first one was a classical piece, and now you have to record something for me.”

Johnson said he enjoys going into his basement to play different music that comes with a recorded background. “Of course, it makes you sound much better if you have a professional background.” On the second CD he played a bunch of Beetles songs on alto sax and opened it with a song called Peg of My Heart.

“Throughout the years, Peggy, as she is known as, has always been a special person, and whenever we have a special occasion that calls for a greeting card, I would address it to Peg of my Heart, so she said you have to sing Peg of my Heart on the next CD that you do for me.” He was able to do that through the miracles of modern recording. “I was able to sing Peg of My Heart performed live with the Glen Miller Orchestra using electronics.”

In addition to the alto sax Beetles’ tunes, he did a number of tunes with the penny whistle. “Irish music has become a big part of my life. I love playing those Irish tunes. I have a very small Scottish background through my mother. My dad was Scandinavian primarily, but way in the back my mother is responsible for the Scottish type of music, so I do enjoy playing those.” He said there are also a number of other things on the CD, such as movie themes, him playing trumpet and doing some singing. “I have some penny whistle songs on there, performing also on the flute and that particular CD ended up with the famous trumpet trio Bugler’s Holiday and again me playing the three different parts on that.”

Johnson said he’s had some bumps in the road along the way. A number of years ago he had a heart attack which slowed him down a little bit. Two years ago, he went through a series of 38 radiation treatments for recurring cancer. “I did not have a lot of side effects except fatigue. It wasn’t enough to slow me down. I still enjoyed playing, and I played my trumpet and had a beautiful collection of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s songs. I decided to put those on this CD and those again are played on trumpet.”

In addition to that he has for a long time had his mother’s 100-plus-year-old Mandolin. “I had it hanging on a wall in the basement, and a couple years ago, I had a new set of strings put on it, twanged on it a little bit, hung it back up and two years ago decided I would learn to play something real on it. I picked an Irish song called A Tale My Ma and I played on the Mandolin.” He did some singing and had the penny whistle, bass guitar, tambourine and again thanks to Brian Pearson’s help was able to put that all together.

Berge Johnson with some of his instruments in a Mustang convertible. Contributed photo

“There is a song on there that no one in the world has recorded because it’s a family folk song my mother taught to me, and she learned that from her grandmother who came from Scotland. It’s a fox hunting song.” He said the royalty used to go hunting foxes on horseback with dogs and would have a hunting horn. “This particular song is called A Yum Bum Boo Hollow. It’s the story of the fox hunt. I did record that. My mother wrote down all the words to that song when she was in her middle 90s. I recorded it at the time, so I have the distinction of recording a song which nobody else has ever recorded. That’s quite neat.”

Another group he enjoys playing with and does this primarily in the summertime is the Coffee House Fiddlers in New London. They’re a group of 12 to 15, and there are a number of fiddlers in there, some mandolins and guitars. “I played a base guitar most of the time but have in the last couple years played primarily second fiddle and sometimes first, penny whistles, and the harmonica.” He said he has a couple of obscure Norwegian instruments, and it’s always kind of fun to demonstrate those, especially around this area. “There are still a lot of Scandinavians and to be able to see and hear something they’ve never seen before is quite neat.”

Johnson said about 10 years ago they began spending winters in Florida. There he discovered a number of different groups that had quite a lot of trumpets. “I started playing primarily trombone, and I had quite a good Dixieland band called the Dixie Gators. We played at the Pine Lakes Pub every Monday night for six or seven years, and I played trombone in that group.” He said there is also a wonderful community band in Fort Meyers, Florida, called the Lee County Community Band. He plays trombone and tuba in that group. “Another group I enjoy playing with is an elite brass choir called the Brass Music Elements and that group also is about 15 trumpets, French horns, tubas and drummers. That is primarily an audition-type group or you have to be recommended by someone to play in there.”

He also plays in a big band group down there called The Memory Makers. “I’ve played lead trombone with that group for a number of years now, and our claim to fame is we play in a number of prominent places down there including the Edison Ford Estate. Two years ago, they dedicated a new music pavilion. Apparently, Thomas Edison loved music.”

Johnson said he still feels very honored to be able to perform. “I tell people I have to keep playing because I plan on peaking one of these years. Of course, I gave up contact sports a number of years ago, but when I run into former students that are not playing their instruments, I tell them ‘You have to start playing your instrument again so you have something to do when you grow up.’”

He said his love for music started with his parents who were very interested in music. “My mother played piano, and my dad sang. I can always remember him singing. He died at the age of 61. My mother died at the age of 100. My mother stopped entertaining old people when she was about 95. She would take her keyboard and go to nursing homes, and I still do that today.”

Johnson also has a number of interests besides music. He has quite the collection of musical instruments. “My students used to ask me how many instruments I have, and I said ‘Well, I never really counted them but somewhere between three and six dozen.’” Johnson said he has most of those instruments left.

In addition to that, after he retired in 1995, he got into old gas engines, something he’s always been fascinated with. “I had quite a collection of gas engines that were used on washing machines starting approximately in 1914 until the 1950s, and of course, Mr. Maytag is the person responsible for those, so I have a large Maytag collection, including collectibles and engines. I also have a little car. In addition to that, I have a camera collection of about 100 cameras.”

He has also had a number of old cars throughout the years and the first one he got was the result of being in Brooten. The banker there had a collection of many, many old cars, and when he came to Willmar, Johnson decided he needed one. “Our first car was a 1934 Chevrolet. I kept that car for 43 years. We just sold that car last year, and it went to a museum in Athens, Georgia.” He added, “I think I’m probably entering my second childhood and decided we needed a little sports car so we have a little orphan 1994 Mercury Capri which we leave in Florida.” It’s a little red convertible, he said, and they love that little car. “We also have a 1966 Mustang convertible and that happened to be the same year that my wife and I got married. We didn’t have that car originally, but we’ve had it for a long time. We take that out on rare occasions. We’ve had some other cars along the way that we’ve sold. Today we have two Ford Mustangs and the Mercury Capri, collector cars.”

Johnson was a tour director with a travel company for about four years after retiring from his job as the band director. Johnson said he got to do some traveling and that partly had to do with why they decided to go to Florida in the winter. “We made a number of trips down there and were fortunate to make a couple of trips overseas too.” He said they went to both Scandinavia and Ireland and have plans to go to Norway, where they will stay with some relatives. “We’ll be just a couple miles from ‘our family farm’ that was deeded by the king in 1540 to our relatives. It’s still there, so we’re looking forward to visiting that. The Hardangerfjord and a number of other places {are also} in that area in Norway.”

Johnson thoroughly enjoys his life and his music and could talk forever about it, but “As the street cleaner said to the horse, that’s enough out of you.”

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