Who is Hall Johnson?

Hall Johnson      Seeing the name Hall Johnson as arranger or composer on so many recital programs piqued my curiosity. We have found only a handful of art songs that are not spirituals based on traditional material. If you have additional information please share it with us, especially titles of his art songs. I began by doing research on the web where I found a fine introductory essay by Randye L. Jones on Afrocentric Voices ( Ms. Jones is a singer in the Washington D.C. area and her recitals are often listed on our calendar. Then I looked in the Grove Dictionary of Music where I found information written by Eileen Southern. This led to her wonderful book, The Music of Black America, a History, Third Edition, 1997. I found it at our local Virginia Beach Public Library.

      Francis Hall Johnson was born in Athens, Georgia on March 12, 1888. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and his grandmother, who was born a slave, sang spirituals to him. In 1910 he received his B.A. Degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Later he attended Juilliard School and the University of Southern California. Around 1914 he settled in Harlem in New York City, where as a working musician he played violin and viola in various groups including the Negro String Quartet, a touring company and several orchestras. He and William Grant Still, also an important composer, were in the Broadway orchestra for the first black musical, Shuffle Along, with Josephine Baker in the chorus.

      The preservation of the uniqueness of the spiritual was his passion. He gathered eight like-minded singers and founded the Hall Johnson Negro Choir. The choir grew to twenty and in February 1928 made its debut at Pythian Temple and a month later sang at New York's Town Hall. The choir became very popular, both in live performance and in radio, and soon had a recording contract with RCA Victor.

    Two years later Johnson's choir sang spirituals that he had arranged for the Broadway play The Green Pastures. His own folk drama Run Little Children was on Broadway in 1933. When The Green Pastures was made into a movie (1936), Johnson took his choir to Hollywood to sing in the production. He worked there for many years as chorus director and sometimes arranger for other films including Lost Horizon (1937), Way Down South and Birth of the Blues. His last film, Cabin in the Sky (1943), had an all-black cast including Lean Horne, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. MGM lost money because southern theaters would not show the film.

    Back in New York he composed an Easter Cantata, Son of Man (1946) premiered by Johnson's new Festival Negro Chorus, which gave concerts on a regular basis. In 1951 he and his chorus were invited by the State Department to represent the U.S. at the International Festival of Fine Arts in Berlin. Afterward the group continued to tour Europe for several months.

    Two books of his arrangements, The Green Pastures Spirituals (1930) and Thirty Negro Spirituals for Voice and Piano have shaped what we today know as spirituals. By preserving the authenticity of these folk songs he has given us a great gift of emotionally fulfilling, or should I say soul-satisfying, experience through song.

    He died on April 30, 1970 in an apartment fire in New York city. He was 82 years old. He was eulogized by Marian Anderson in the New York Times on May 24: "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."

Chronology of Hall Johnson's Life

1888    Born March 12, Athens, Gorgia. Grandmother sang slave songs to him.
1910    First music degree, B.A., Univerisity of Pennsylvania; Later studied at Juilliard School and University of Southern California.
1914    Played violin and viola in James Reese's European Orchestra and had a studio where he taught.
1921   Shuffle Along, the first Black musical on Broadway. He and William Grant Still played in the orchestra with Josephine Baker in the chorus.
1925    In September organized Hall Johnson Negro Choir (later becoming famous).
1928    His Choir performs in New York's Town Hall and later that year records first album for RCA Victor.
1930    His Choir sings his spiritual settings in the musical Green Pastures (popular Bible stories retold with an all Black cast) on Broadway. The Green Pastures Spirituals book is published.
1933    His folk drama Run Little Children produced on Broadway.
1934    Honorary Doctor of Music from Philadelphia Academy of Music.
1936    His Choir in film The Green Pastures, score composed by Johnson.
1937    His Choir in film Lost Horizon. White cast, he did not write music.
1942    The Hall Johnson singers appear in the last of six sequences in the movie Tales of Manhattan.  It features Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson as well as members of the Hall Johnson singers.  In the movie the choir can be heard humming "I've been 'buked" continually in the background and then singing one verse.  They also sing "In that Great, Gittin up mornin", and "I got shoes", all arranged by Johnson. (Thanks to Jim Brown for this information).
1943    His Choir sings in film, (he did not write music) Cabin in the Sky. Black cast, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. MGM lost money because southern theaters would not show film.
1946    Easter Cantata Son of Man premiered by Johnson's Festival Negro Chorus of New York at New York City Center. Mixed a cappella choir, soloists, narrator with some accompaniment by organ, brass choir, harp and percussion.
1949    Schirmer publishes his book Thirty Spirituals Arranged for Voice and Piano.
1951    His Choir selected by State Department to represent U.S. at International Festival of Fine Arts in Berlin. The group continues to tour Europe for several months.
1956    Composed Ain't got Time to Die and other art songs in the style of spirituals.
1970    Died on April 30 during a fire at his NYC apartment at age 82. On May 24 Marian Anderson eulogizes him in the New York Times. Inducted into Black Film-makers Hall of Fame.
2003    Carl Fischer Publisher produced The Hall Johnson Collection, a massive compilation of traditional African-American spirituals and traditional songs for voice and piano with two CDs (catalogue #VF5, $34.95) . Shirley Verrett's autobiography tells how he coached her to superb effect in French and German.
2006    First CD devoted exclusively to his solo songs, He'll Bring it to Pass (Albany/ Videmus - Troy 846) with soprano Louise Toppin, pianist Joseph Joubert.
-----?    Does anyone know the date his operetta Fi-Yer was written?

      This chronology and the song list are a work in progress. If you have corrections and additional information send them to Artsong Update and we will post any new information on our website.

Hall Johnson Song List

      We have compiled a list of some ninety song titles. We have heard live and on CD about one-third of this list. In our area of Tidewater Virginia Patricia Saunders Nixon and Lisa Relaford Coston sing his songs often. The list will remain on our website and will be revised as we and our readers discover more songs. Do send us your finds.

*Thirty Negro Spirituals (1949)
+The Green Pastures Spirituals (1930)

  At the Feet of Jesus (Lanston Hughes)
  Ain't Got Time to Die
*Belshazza' Had a Feas'
+Cert'ny Lord
  City Called Heaven
  The Courtship (art song)
  Crossing the Bar
  Crucfixion (from cantata Son of Man)
*Dat Suits Me
  David (Dwight Strickland)
+Death's Gon'ter Lay His Col' Icy Hands on Me
+De Blin' Man Stood on de Road an' Cried
+De Ol' Ark's Moverin'
+Dere's No Hidin' Place Down Dere
+Doncher Let Nobody Turn You Roun'
*Done Written Down My Name
*Every Time I Feel the Spirit
  Ezekiel Saw de Wheel
  Fix Me Jesus (published 1940)
  Fi-yer! (Fire) (from the Operetta Fi-yer)
  The Foundling (text Hall Johnson)
  Give Me Jesus
*Glory Hallel to de Newborn King
+Go Down Moses
  Good News
*Gospel Train is Coming
*Great Day
+Hail! De King of Babylon! (Babylonian National Anthem)
+Hallelujah! King Jesus
  He'll Bring it to Pass
  Heaven is One Beautiful Place
  His Name So Sweet
  Hol' de Light
  Hold On (Keep Your Hand on that Plow)
  Honor, Honor
*How Long Train Been Gone?
  I'm Callin' (text Oscar O. Cozad)
+I Can't Stay Away
  I Cannot Stay Here by Myself (a slave's lament)
*I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray
  I Got to Lie Down (from cantata Son of Man)
  I'm Gonter Tell God All of My Troubles
+In Bright Mansions Above
+I Want to Be Ready
  I've Been 'Buked
  Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window
  John Henry
+Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho
*Keep a-Inchin' Along
*Let de Heb'n Light Shine on Me
  Let's Have a Union
+Lord, I Don't Feel No Ways Tired
*Leanin' on Dat Lamb
+March On
*Mary Had a Baby
  Mother to Son (Langston Hughes)
  My Good Lord Done Been Here
+My God is So High
+My Lord's a-Writin' All de Time
*My Lord What a Morning
*Oh, Freedom
  Oh, Glory
*Oh, Graveyard
+Oh, Mary, Doncher Weep
+Oh, Rise an' Shine
  On the Dusty Road (Langston Hughes)
  O Stan' Still Jordan
*Over Yonder
*Po' Mo'ner Got a Home at Las'
*Prayer is de Key
*Religion is a Fortune
*Ride On, King Jesus
  River Chant
  Roll Jerd'n Roll
+Run, Sinner, Run!
*Scandalize My Name
*Sinner-Man So Hard to Believe
+Some o' Dese Days
  Steal Away (fold drama Run Li'l Chillun')
*Standin' in de Need of Prayer
*Stan' Still, Jordan
*Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
  Take My Mother Home (St. John 19: 26 - 27) (cantata Son of Man)
*There is a Balm in Gilead
*This is de Healin' Water
+You Better Min'!
  Wade in the Water
*Were You There?
  What Kinder Shoes
+When de Saints Come Marchin' In
*When I Lay My Burden Down
+Witness (1940)

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