Hall Johnson: His Life, His Spirit, and His Music

By Greschner, Debra | Journal of Singing, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

Hall Johnson: His Life, His Spirit, and His Music


Greschner, Debra, Journal of Singing


Eugene Thamon Simpson, Hall Johnson: His Life, His Spirit, and His Music. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008. Cloth, xv, 369 pp., $75.00. ISBN 978-0-8108-6038 www.scarecrowpress. com

Hall Johnson (1888-1970) is best known to singers and teachers for his masterful arrangements of spirituals. His musical contributions, however, extend well beyond these song collections. For more than two decades, the choir he founded and directed was the premiere professional choir in the United States, appearing on stage and screen. In addition to his success as an arranger of spirituals, he was also a composer in his own right, as well as a respected teacher and coach. Eugene Thamon Simpson, who is founding curator of the Hall Johnson Collection at Rowan University of New Jersey, offers the first definitive biography of Johnson.

Simpson, who met Johnson in 1959 and maintained both professional and personal ties with him until the composer's death in 1970, begins the volume with an historical account of Johnson's life. The son of two college-educated parents, Johnson studied at Atlanta University, Alien University, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Music. He moved to New York in 1914, at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, and supported himself by playing viola in a professional string quartet, and also with privately teaching theory, composition, and violin. In 1925, he founded the Hall Johnson Negro Choir. In an essay written later in his life, he stated that the purpose of the group was to showcase the unique art form of spirituals. He feared that as times changed, the style of spirituals would be lost; the repertoire demands a performance practice that, in his opinion, cannot be accurately notated, but must be learned through imitation.

The choral ensemble garnered both popular and critical acclaim. Simpson includes reviews (or, where copyright restriction prevents reproduction, synopses of reviews) of tours, films, and stage work. The group appeared in The Green Pastures, a biblical play with music that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930. Johnson's choir also appeared in dozens of films, including the film version of The Green Pastures and Lost Horizon. An entire chapter is devoted to its roles on the silver screen; Simpson describes the choir as "a major force in cinematic history from the very beginning of sound films." The choir was selected by the United States State Department to represent the country at the International Festival of Fine Arts in West Berlin in 1951.

A listing of Johnson's music includes both arranged and composed works; the catalogue indicates if the work is published, unpublished, in manuscript, in print, and available for rental. …

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