(A more up-to-date version of this biography is available at afrovoices.com/hall-johnson-biography)
Hall Johnson (1888-1970)
by Randye Jones
Francis Hall Johnson was born in Athens, Georgia, on 12 March 1888. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and a college president. Johnson's early musical influence is credited to his grandmother, a former slave who exposed him to spirituals. He attended Atlanta University and graduated from Allen University, then he continued his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Juilliard School and the University of Southern California.
He began his professional career as a violinist with James Reese Europe's orchestra and opened a studio where he taught violin and other instruments. He also played in the orchestra for the musical, Shuffle Along, in 1921. In time, however, his musical interest turned to choral music, especially performance of Negro spirituals. Johnson formed the Hall Johnson Negro Choir in September 1925. He stated that he wanted "to show how the American Negro slaves--in 250 years of constant practice, self-developed under pressure but equipped with their inborn sense of rhythm and drama (plus their new religion)--created, propagated and illuminated an art-form which was, and still is, unique in the world of music."1
Johnson's choir performed with great success in concert and on the radio within the New York City area, and they made their first recording for RCA Victor in 1928. Then in 1930, they sang his settings of spirituals composed for the musical, The Green Pastures, on Broadway. This success was followed by the Broadway production of Johnson's Run Little Chillun in 1933. Between 1935 and 1943, the Johnson choir was featured in films such as The Green Pastures, Lost Horizon and Cabin in the Sky.
Hall Johnson continued to organize choral groups, including festival choirs in both Los Angeles and New York. He wrote numerous works for his choirs as well as spiritual settings for solo voice and piano (click on image to the left to see full-sized score dedicated to famed contralto Marian Anderson). Johnson's Festival Negro Chorus of New York premiered his Easter cantata, Son of Man, in April 1946 at New York City Center. The cantata was scored for mixed a cappella chorus, vocal soloists and narrator, with occasional accompaniment of organ, brass choir, harp, tympani and percussion.
In 1951, the Hall Johnson Negro Choir was selected by the Department of State to represent the United States at the International Festival of Fine Arts held in Berlin, Germany. They then toured Europe for several months.
Hall Johnson was known not only for his compositions, but for the articles he authored that discussed the history of the spiritual and their performance practice. In the preface of his collection, Thirty Spirituals Arranged for Voice and Piano, Johnson stated,
Finally, there is one all-important consideration--the right mental attitude on the part of the singer. Without this factor, the most careful observance of the preceding suggestions will result only in an empty and meaningless performance.
True enough, this music was transmitted to us through humble channels, but its source is that of all great art everywhere—the unquenchable, divinely human longing for a perfect realization of life. It traverses every shade of emotion without spilling over in any direction. Its most tragic utterances are without pessimism, and its lightest, brightest moments have nothing to do with frivolity. In its darkest expressions there is always a hope, and in its gayest measures a constant reminder. Born out of the heart-cries of a captive people who still did not forget how to laugh, this music covers an amazing range of mood. Nevertheless, it is always serious music and should be performed seriously, in the spirit of its original conception.2
Johnson was also fluent in French and German. Opera diva and recitalist Shirley Verrett, who received coaching from him, noted in her autobiography that he suggested that she study German lieder. She stated that:
When I eventually went to Juillard, my German teacher there was flabbergasted at my facility and asked where I had learned the language. I told her from Hall Johnson, whom I am sure she had never heard of, much less suspected was a black man who had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and had also studied at Juilliard. "I don't care who taught you. He did a good job," she said.3
Throughout his life, Johnson received numerous awards for his compositions, including The Urban League's "Opportunity Contest" competitions, the Harmon Award (1931), honorary doctorate from the Philadelphia Music Academy, the George Frederic Handel Award, and a posthumous induction to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Johnson died on April 30, 1970, during a fire at his New York apartment. Marian Anderson, who recorded a number of his solo vocal settings, commented, "Hall Johnson was a unique genius. For although he invented no new harmonies, designed no new forms, originated no new melodic styles, discovered no new rhythmic principles, he was yet able to fashion a whole new world of music in his own image."4
1Hall Johnson, "Notes on the Negro Spiritual," (1965). In Readings in Black American Music, comp. and ed. Eileen Southern, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), 277.
2Johnson, Thirty Spirituals: Arranged for Voice and Piano. (New York: G. Schirmer; dist., Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 1949), .
3Shirley Verrett with Christopher Brooks, I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Son, 2003), 36.
4Marian Anderson, "Hall Johnson, 1888-1970," The New York Times, 24 May 1970, X17.
Musical excerpt: "Ride On, King Jesus," by Hall Johnson. Excerpt from Grace Bumbry: A Portrait. Recorded by Grace Bumbry and Beaumont Glass, July 4, 1965. Gala, 1999.
The author would like to thank Dr. Eugene Thamon Simpson for contributing the information about Son of Man.