Josephine Johnson: Ukulele Poet

'Things seem to be happier on the ukulele'

Updated November 2, 2020 at 2:46 p.m.

Jack Johnson couldn’t have spoken truer words than Savannah’s own Josephine Johnson.

“Things seem to be happier on the ukulele,” she says.

The ukulele brings us “Banana Pancakes,” Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Pacific breezes. And it fits her, Savannah’s bicoastal musical wunderkind, quite literally.

“I don’t have to strap it to me the way that I do a guitar,” she says. “Plus it only has four strings. So it’s two-thirds easier, right?” she adds with a laugh.

Johnson loves the ukulele for many reasons. But its happy sound is most important.

Now into her second residency in Savannah, Johnson finds happiness here on her strings. You can sense that from her presence online, where she posts ukulele and guitar videos. You can sense that from the stage, where she sings with a transcending enchantment. And you can sense that from her still young and unfolding biography.

She’s moved from coast to coast twice and overseas to perform, to teach and to write.

“All of the decisions that I’ve made have been for music,” she says.

The Indiana native first found stringed happiness at SCAD. She recorded an album here. She befriended the late Clinton Powell. Together, they shared poetry and music with kids. But then, the clarion of opportunity, the siren that leads all greats from this place, called. She earned a master’s in English from Humboldt State University in Northern California.

“Everyone up there paints, writes, performs or sings,” she says of redwood country. “That was wonderful. But it’s also pretty isolated, about 5-6 hours from San Francisco.”

She taught English in China because it gave her the freedom to write. And then came her musical crucible, the Los Angeles hustle: teach, pay rent, play, repeat.

Great rooms like LA’s El Cid and Portland’s Artichoke Music welcomed her style. Arresting and deep, it commands attention. And in important ways, she got attention.

“When you have the opportunity to perform in front of people who are sober, who are listening and who want to be engaged with what you’re doing, that’s the best,” she says.

That type of creative spark, I know from my own experience, justifies any hustle. But her teaching contract ended and her apartment burned down in a made-for-TV blaze.

Firemen warned her not to run into her apartment but she did so anyway to grab guitars.

“These instruments are my life,” she says.

Her high rent LA hustle ended shortly after. Returning to Humboldt County, she began looking again for that “right place.”

So after many years away, she’s back in our “not too big, not too small” creative nexus.

She sings about being heard and being okay on “Let It All Out.” She sings about a trickster Santeria god on “Tuesday Evening” (not all ukulele is happy). And she writes about overcoming fears, perhaps hinting politically, on “Come Down.”

A poet of uncanny rhythm and vision, she doesn’t waste a single line. A singer of intense versatility, she shifts between thunder and whisper, to dramatic effect.

I hope she stays in the Hostess City for the long haul. But that’s very selfish of me.

“Truly I want to write and perform,” she says. “But the margin to do this is so narrow. That’s why I have a master’s degree, so I can have a decent day job to subsidize this.”

And to subsidize a new album, to be recorded at San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone Studios. That’s quite an accomplishment, to be in the house of John Vanderslice.

Call the upcoming session a Pacific breeze coming into her life again.

Will it be her “Over the Rainbow?” That “right place?” Only the ukulele knows.


Published September 6, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.

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