Leslie Johnson, publisher of The Mississippi Rag (photo courtesy kfai.org)
A few weeks ago, while looking up something else entirely, I happened to find a photo online of Leslie Johnson, who for 35 years published The Mississippi Rag. I was moved to see an image of the person who did successfully what I’m attempting to do now, but for much of that time without the digital shortcuts on which I rely so heavily. I have a vague idea of what is entailed in a computer-free layout, having watched my father publish a local franchise of a TV weekly in the late 1970s. To create a monthly jazz newspaper that stands as a reference work even today using layout methods that Ben Franklin and Sam Clemens would not have found incomprehensible is almost incomprehensible to me.
Johnson, who had a degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota, got involved with the traditional jazz scene in the Twin Cities, then centered around The Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, Minnesota. Her husband at the time, Dennis Johnson suggested she start a publication to tell the stories of the musicians and fans that weren’t being told elsewhere. The Mississippi Rag debuted in November 1973 with a profile of Max Morath. It was the first full-fledged traditional jazz publication that was more than a fanzine or a newsletter, and in time its influence was international.
In the early days of the Rag, Leslie Johnson would lay out the paper in an office in her basement, pasting up the pages to be photographed using an offset process. Looking at some of those 1970s issues now, one is astonished by the amount of material that Johnson managed to fit into as few as 16 pages. The type is tiny, smaller that the 12-point Times New Roman used in this publication. Consequently, that allowed for lengthier articles—yet also the inclusion of a fair number of photographs.
In time, she moved the office out of her home into other facilities that allowed room for the use of new desktop publishing technology as it emerged. Even so, throughout its entire existence the staff consisted of just Leslie Johnson and one or more members of her family. In 2007, after 33 years of publication, The Mississippi Rag became an online-only publication. By that time, Johnson was fighting a rare form of cancer which had been diagnosed in 2005. Near the end, during the last year of publication, her eyesight was nearly gone. Remarkably, through four years of radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and surgery, she never missed a deadline.
In the words of Paige Van Vorst, writing for jazzology.com, “She made her goal of putting out the magazine for 35 years and once she notified her writers and readers that publication of the magazine had ceased she entered a hospice and passed away quietly a week later, surrounded by friends and family.” Leslie Johnson died at the N.C. Little Hospice on Edina, Minnesota on January 17, 2009.
In an interview with Tad Vezner of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, pianist and clarinetist Butch Thompson said, “There have been any number of people enthusiastic about this kind of music, but to do it for 35 years without missing a single deadline, there’s never been anything like that.” He added, “It was one person. She was the one doing all the hard work.”
When I took over publication of The American Rag and relaunched it as The Syncopated Times, I began to consider the various traditional jazz publications that preceded mine. At the time I was largely unfamiliar with The Mississippi Rag, though over the past 18 months I’ve managed to find a number of copies through that repository of all good things, eBay. I am duly impressed, awed, and perhaps even a bit daunted by what has gone before. I can’t claim yet to have proven myself worthy of picking up the torch. After 20 issues, I still operate with a learner’s permit.
What I would like to do, though, is honor my predecessors by archiving their back issues. That would include The West Coast Rag and The American Rag as well as The Mississippi Rag. I have about a full year of The American Rag (that year being 2015, when I began to write for the publication) and no copies of The West Coast Rag. And of course I would love to have every copy of The Mississippi Rag that I can lay hands upon.
If any readers have copies of the above publications that they would like to see go to a good home, I ask that they get in touch with me at the addresses (postal or email) on page 2 of this paper. I will happily pay postage for them to be sent here, and there may be other considerations. I promise I’ll be fair.
(Read A Note of Thanks to a subscriber who responded to this call to action and a general thank you to those who hold onto things because the future might need them.)
(current as of 9/1/2018)
We now have a full run of The Mississippi Rag in print including the online editions as printed out by a subscriber. What would still be helpful should we ever be in a position to archive the MR would be the online editions in digital form.
We still lack any issues of The West Coast Rag and have only a smattering of physical copies of The American Rag. We do have PDF’s of The American Rag back to 2007 and a handful of feature stories back to 2001. We plan to archive it all as individual articles for easy searching and printing as time goes by.
As needs change with time please contact us before sending anything.
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