Robert One-Man Johnson


Robert ‘One-Man’ Johnson (born Robert Vernon Valentine Johnson, September 12, 1942 in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, United States) is a singer-songwriter, musician, writer, and educator. He was raised in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. His family included father Kenneth, mother Alice, and four brothers: Thomas, Richard, Gary, and Stuart. He graduated from Rhinelander High School in 1960, from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1967 (BA Art Education/English), and from the University of Iowa in 1990 (MA Linguistics/English Education). He is married (1972) to Margery Fairchild Johnson. Margery's specialties include teacher, photographer, jeweler, artist, and graphic designer.

Musical Beginnings

Robert’s father worked as bookkeeper for a music store in Rhinelander Wisconsin. The elder Mr. Johnson frequently took his wages in barter for records, record players, radios, televisions, and miscellaneous musical instruments, often bringing home harmonicas and other small devices for Robert to play with. Robert began accordion lessons at age 12, but became interested in guitar from listening to country western and early rock ‘n roll records. He received his first acoustic guitar at 12, a Harmony six string flat top. An accident at age 13 fostered an even stronger relationship with music. Hit by a truck while riding his bicycle to school, he received fifty-five stitches in his right arm. His father bought him a new Danelectro guitar and a Gibson amp to encourage physical rehabilitation.


In 1958 Johnson formed his first band, The Debonaires, which focused on covers of Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and The Coasters. Robert’s interest shifted to acoustic folk blues after hearing recordings of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter). In 1963, while attending college, he formed The New Freedom Singers acoustic folk trio with Larry Heagle and James Zerrenner. In 1966 Robert joined the Rock Bottom River Band with Heagle, drummer Ron Keezer, bassist Jerry Way, and saxophonist John Bucholtz. At that time, Robert opened a coffee house in Eau Claire called A Horse of A Different Color hosting internationally known blues and folk singers such as Jesse Fuller, Tracy Nelson, Koerner, Ray and Glover, and local musicians including Liz Thorssen, Mike Quick, and Earl’s Pearls Jug Band. In 1968, interested in electric guitar and harmonica in the Chicago blues style, he formed The Last Fair Deal Blues Band with Chuck Solberg piano, Mike Quick guitar, and Tom Swearingen drums.

Inspired by Jesse ‘Lone Cat’ Fuller on the stage of the Horse of a Different Color in 1966, Robert found a new direction for his musical interests. He began practicing the simultaneous playing of guitar, harmonica, hi-hat cymbal and a pawn-shop electronic foot pedal bass. Dissatisfied with the electronic bass sound, Johnson developed his own acoustic ‘foot piano’ based on Fullers ‘fotdella’ using home-made wooden pedals, bass guitar strings, and a section cut from an upright piano. Robert has made and discarded many of these foot-operated devices, some acoustic and some incorporating various types of electric pickups. Played with a shoeless left foot, the intent of this evolving instrument is to present a bass line rhythm accompaniment producing a sound that is a cross between an acoustic string bass and a kick drum. Tapping a cymbal with his right foot while his hands are occupied by acoustic, steel-bodied, or 12 string guitar, the mouth is saved for singing and blowing harmonica and kazoo. Robert sings original songs and classic country blues and folk tunes ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1950s.

During the years 1970-83, after finally developing his new one-man-band sound, Johnson toured the US as solo artist. Represented by Linda Coulter of Coulter talent agency, ‘One-Man’ performed at colleges and festivals across the US. Johnson performed as an opening act for noted headliners Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, John Prine, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and others. His solo performances during that period included presentations at the Museum of Modern Art, A Prairie Home Companion, Milwaukee Summerfest, Chicagofest, the Three Rivers Arts festival, and the Iowa City Fine Arts Festival. Johnson also appeared at blues festivals, music clubs, and bars throughout the US.

In 1985 Johnson decided to cease US touring and joined his wife as an international educator in a sort of ‘dual career’. While teaching English in Turkey, Japan, Saudi Arabia, China and Thailand, Johnson continued focus on his songwriting and performance, but now in collaboration with musicians from other countries. He has recorded and performed with Turkish fretless guitarist Erkan Ogur, Japanese blues guitarist Naoyuki Ishishiro, pop singer and guitarist Anothai Thititan of Bangkok, and Dennis McMurrin, blues/funk guitarist of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has often included the creative percussion of Estonian-American, Tiit Raid in his live performances and on recordings for his home-grown recording company Housedog Music.

During his time as an English instructor to students from countries around the world, ‘One-Man’ has used guitar and song as a method of instruction and motivation. He has written many songs with student input about the content of classroom lessons. He has recorded a CD of this work called Don’t Make a Dinosaur Sore. Now retired from international education, Robert ‘One-Man’ Johnson maintains two residences: one in northern Minnesota and one in Iowa City, Iowa. He continues to record and perform from this Midwestern base.

International Postings

1983-1986 - Middle School Instructor, English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
Uskudar American Girls School, Istanbul Turkey

1986-1988 - Middle and High School Instructor, English for Technology and EFL
Robert College of Istanbul Turkey

1990-1993 - K-12 Director and Curriculum Coordinator for EFL
Nagoya International School, Nagoya Japan

1994-1999 - Grade 7-9 English Instructor
Yanbu International School, Yanbu Saudi Arabia

1999-2000 - High School EFL
Robert College, Istanbul Turkey

2001-2008 - Director, Middle School Writing Program, English Teacher
Shanghai American School, Shanghai China

2010-2011 - Middle School English and Substitute Teacher
International School Bangkok

Sound Recordings

Sweet Mama, Don’t Let It Fall! (1976)  Sweet Jane Records; with Tom Mitchell autoharp, Chuck Solberg piano, Jeff Dagenhardt guitar, Snuffy Edwardsen, washboard; engineered and produced by Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray of Sweet Jane Records

’54 Chevrolet Panel Truck Blues (1978) Housedog Music; solo album recorded live in-studio; engineered and produced by Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray of Sweet Jane Records

One-Man Cekirdek Resitali (1985) Turkish cassette release only; recorded live at Cekirdek Sanat Evi, Suadiye, Istanbul, Turkey; produced by Fikret Kizilok

Istanbul’da Bir Amerikali (1986) Turkish cassette release only; recorded live at Cekirdek Sanat Evi, Suadiye, Istanbul, Turkey, with Ilkin Deniz bass, and Erkan Ogur fretless guitar;  produced by Fikret Kizilok

Beyaz Veya Siyah Midir? (1987) Turkish cassette release only; recorded live at Cekirdek Sanat Evi, Suadiye, Istanbul, Turkey; produced by Fikret Kizilok

Mideast/Midwest (1989) Housedog Music; with Tiit Raid, percussion, Randy Sabien, violin, Erkan Ogur, fretless guitar; recorded live at The Breadline in Eau Claire Wisconsin; recorded digitally by Larry Glenn

Bruise, Live in Nagoya (1992) Housedog Music; with Naoyuki Ishishiro guitar, Chris Threlkeld Wiegand electric bass, Yukie Hara drums, and Masanori Honda percussion; recorded live at the Bottom Line and Club Quattro , Nagoya Japan by Andy Borland

Don’t Make a Dinosaur Sore (1998) Housedog Music; with Chris Wadsworth, banjo, Erkan Ogur, fretless guitar, Margery Johnson, spoons and Reha Erdir, voice; recorded by Reha Erdir in Istanbul Turkey

Let’s Get Primitive (2000) Housedog Music; with Dave Moore accordion, Bobby Hendricks, tuba, Naoyuki Ishishiro guitar, Chris Wadsworth banjo, Dennis McMurrin electric guitar, Erkan Ogur classical and fretless electric guitars, and Tiit Raid percussion; recorded in Iowa City Iowa, Nagoya Japan, and Istanbul Turkey;  produced by Patrick Bloom, Bo Ramsey, Reha Erdir and Robert Johnson

So Many Roads To Ramble (2000) Housedog Music; with Tiit Raid, percussion and voice, Dennis McMurrin guitar; recorded live at the Sanctuary in Iowa City by Patrick Bloom

Flusteration! (2003) Housedog Music; with Naoyuki Ishishiro guitar, Koichiro Taniguchi vocal, Tiit Raid percussion, and Dennis McMurrin guitar; produced by Patrick Bloom and Naoyuki Ishishiro; recorded in Iowa City and Nagoya Japan

50/50 (2006) Housedog Music; limited Chinese release; with Ralph Greenblatt electric bass, and Andy Marks drums: trio format live at Happen Bar, Shanghai China; recorded by Jeff Thompson; re-mastered by Bob Goffstein

Soft Shoulders, Dangerous Curves (2013) solo album; vocals, guitar, harmonica and foot piano in simultaneous live recording in-studio; engineered, produced, and mixed by Bob Goffstein, Iowa City, Iowa

Housedog Music Presents! (2015) solo album; old blues and jazz songs; vocals, guitar, harmonica and foot piano in simultaneous live recording in-studio; engineered, produced, and mixed by Bob Goffstein, Iowa City, Iowa


Head, Hands & Feet: A Book of One Man Bands
by Dave Harris, 2012; ISBN#978-0-987650-0-7; Friesens Corporation, Canada

The New York Times, Weekend, Friday June 3, 1977 Eleanor Blau

The Daily Iowan, July 11 1977, Jay Walljasper

Chicago Tribune, January 28 1977, Lynn Van Matre

St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 6, 1977, Dewey Berscheid

Illinois Entertainer Magazine, Vol.2/19; Staff