He may have been trained to become an engraver under James Reed of Edinburgh. He was a prolific engraver of music and made the plates for over half the music printed in Scotland from 1772 to 1790. His early engravings were done on copper and included Six Canzones for Two Voices (1772), A Collection of Favourite Scots Tunes … by the Late Mr Chs McLean and other Eminent Masters (c1772) and Twenty Minuets (1773) by Daniel Dow.
On 2 July 1791 he married Charlotte Grant, daughter of the writer Lauchlan Grant. They had a son, James, baptised on 13 September 1792, who appears not to have survived to his majority.
He died in Edinburgh on 26 February 1811 and a public appeal was made for support for his widow in March 1819.
The Scots Musical Museum
Johnson had a plan for a two-volume collection of Scottish, Irish and English songs, when he met Robert Burns. The nature of the project then changed: its scope was restricted to Scottish songs, and the number of volumes rose to six, produced from 1787 to 1803. The success of the conception was not matched by financial security for Johnson. Burns contributed 184 pieces; some were original, including many of his best-known lyrics, and others were alterations of or derived from old ballads. Prefaces to some of the volumes were by Burns, who in effect edited the work. Johnson tried pewter plates to cut down the production costs. Burns produced an interleaved version of the Museum of the first four volumes for Robert Riddell.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1892). . Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 30. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Kidson, Frank; et al. (2001). "James Johnson". In Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5.
- Hunter, Richard Ian. "Johnson, James". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/14890. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)