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How Music Kept a Love Strong for 70 Years

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

Octogenarian Roland Johnson plays the bass fiddle.

Tonight he played for his Valentine at a concert in their retirement community in North East Austin.

Johnson and his wife Elizabeth have been married for 65 years. They say music is one of the things that helped keep their marriage strong. Their love for music is so powerful that some of their children and even grandchildren turned out to be musicians too.

The sound of music becomes louder as one gets closer to the Johnsons apartment. Inside the small and exquisitely furnished apartment, three generations of Johnsons played their bass fiddles

Roland Johnson, son Randy Johnson and grandson Terrence Guerrero start with "Amazing Grace" and follow with "When the Saints go Marching in."

Credit Courtesy of Chelsea White.
Randy Johnson and his dad Roland Johnson are musicians. Now, a third generation of musicians is joining them. Grandson Terrence Guerrero also plays the bass fiddle. They say every year, each family member joins the music at the Johnson Christmas party. They say it is one thing that has kept the family together and strong.

Grandson Terrence Guerrero became fascinated with the instrument from watching his grandfather play. He remembers being three or four years old and thinking his grandfather was "the epitome of cool." Guerrero says when his "granddaddy" wasn't smiling, it was because there was a harmonica in his mouth. "I just always wanted to do that [play like granddaddy," says Guerrero.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
Roland Johnson is 87. His wife is 88. Family members say he's always smiling and if he isn't, it's because he has a harmonica in his mouth.

Roland and Elizabeth Johnson were educators and they had five children. So, money was always tight. But Randy Johnson, the youngest of the children, says his parents "always found a way to provide instruments and lessons," he says, "that was really huge."

This past week, Roland Johnson and his friend Terry Heller practiced for the concert. With Heller at the piano, they played songs like "You are my sunshine" and others that date back to the 1920's.

Elizabeth Johnson is always by her husband's side; her hands tapping to the rhythm.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
Elizabeth Johnson still laughs at the same jokes she's heard her husband tell for 70 years. He says that helps keep the marriage strong.

In between songs, Roland Johnson describes the day he fell in love. It was the summer of 1945. Both were attending a church camp in North Carolina. The two hit it off. One day they went hiking and came across a stream. Roland decided he was going to be "sir Galahad" and carry "his lady" across the stream.

Roland slipped.

Just as she did seventy years ago, Elizabeth bursts into laughter. That day Roland knew this was the woman he was going to marry.

He says she still laughs at his jokes, even the ones she's heard over and over.

That too has helped keep the marriage strong.

Elizabeth recalls that during their courtship, Roland would hitchhike and walk for more than sixteen hours from Texas, where he lived, to Mississippi where she lived until they got married three years after that summer camp.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.