Mike Johnson
Washboards International

Mike Johnson has worked as a waiter, a stockbroker and a "business and marketing" specialist, but you only need to know him for five minutes to realize that all this rent-paying stuff is peripheral. What really matters is The Organization.

"We had 260 members at the beginning of this month," he announces. "I logged on to the Internet this morning to check -- we now have 276."

These lucky enlistees have joined Wash- boards International, Johnson's brainchild and fixation. They do not pay dues -- "Nah, no one's ever gonna pay me," he says fatalistically -- and get, for their non-existent ante, a couple of bumper stickers. But bonds between washboard players run deeper than that. Or else, Johnson muses, they are more shallow.

"It's not a terribly complex instrument," Johnson admits. "You just get one and figure it out. You end up having more fun than money."

Johnson was working steadily as a rock-and-roll drummer in 1970, the year he heard his first jazz washboard while waiting tables at a Dixieland theme bar on Larimer Street. "It was rowdy and up-tempo, and I loved it," he recalls. "Swing, Dixieland. I just kinda picked it up, and even today, I'm looked down on."

But at least Johnson has made sure he's been disdained in good company. While checking out the Sacramento Jazz Festival in 1983, he conceived the idea of an all-washboard concert, in which as many cacophonists as possible would take the stage at once. Thirty washboard players showed up -- a wide segment of humanity, if Johnson remembers it right -- "and none of us had any pride. Was there a singer? Ha! You try to sing over thirty washboards."

Nevertheless, the Washboard Concert became one of the most popular events at the jazz festival, and as Johnson began to compile addresses of musicians he'd met, the idea of a fraternal cell began to take hold. "We weren't even international, really," he says. "I just liked the sound of it." But just when the paradox was getting predictable, five washboard players from Sweden joined up.

Like all of WI's members, they play their own, absolutely unique instruments. "You go out and get a couple of thimbles, stick them on a couple of your fingers," Johnson suggests. (He gets his, industrial-quality, at Denver's Able Tailoring Thread and Supply.) "You might attack it with a kitchen whisk. You might have a horn. The zydeco guys use bottle openers. There's spoons, of course, and wood blocks. Cymbals and cowbells. No two sound alike."

And no one would want them to. So at this year's Washboard Concert, Johnson says, he'll be acting not as conductor, but as traffic cop.

"I'm expecting forty washboards," he says. "And a gutbucket bass. And a guy that plays duck call. It's a very big draw." -- Robin Chotzinoff

Washboard Mama
Makes National News

by Don Jones

Santa Cruz, CA

Imagine my surprise while reading our morning paper
(Victorville--Daily Press) on December 11 when my eyes
took a second look at the story headlined on page B5
above a two-column wide picture of Big Mama Sue Kroninger
and her washboard, "Investors refuse to let washboard
company fold." If your paper didn't carry this story,
here's what it's about.

The Associated Press (AP) story by Nancy Nussbaum went on
to tell how a George D. Richards, a pharmaceuticals wholesaler,
following his son G.K.'s advice bought and took over the operation
of the Columbus Washboard Co. of Logan, Ohio. He and seven other
investors decided to buy the firm from Mike Taylor, who after 12 years
lead Columbus Washboard founded in 1895 which his wife had
inherited from her uncle.

Washboard sales, being what they've always been, have had their
ups and downs--pun fully intended. But lately they've been down
from a high of 1.3 million units in 1941 to just 50,000-60,000
in 1998. Since relocating the washboard plant into a former shoe
factory building, the product line has been expanded and nearly
30,000 washboards have been sold under the new ownership.

Sue was contacted by the AP's Nussbaum after researching the
niche market musicians bring to the washbaord industry. Nussbaum
contacted Mike Johnson, former washboard player with Your Father's
Mustache and keeper of the washboardists pedigree, who shared with
her his compilation of players in the U.S. and 22 foreign countries.
Mike maintains a washboards Website:

Page 62 The American Rag April 2000

Lander (WY) Jazz Festival 9/1/99
Left: Big Mama Sue; Center, Mike Johnson with the pretty legs;
Right, Gary Ryan with the see through banjo,

No stranger to our readers, Sue Kroninger has sung and played the
washboard at just about every jazz festival and harvest fair on the
circuit since she began playing washboard 12 years ago. "It was one
I bought in a junk store," she said. "I rubbed through it." She now
plays on a custon-built model with a stainless steel surface designed
after her original from Columbus Washboard. For bookings:
contact Sue at 831-464-2549 in Santa Cruz, California and she can be
e-mailed at

For information on Columbus Washboards contact: Attn: Tia Conrad,
14 Logan Ave., Logan. OH 43138-1666 or phone 800-343-7967
to order their catalog. Website:

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