Hall Johnson (1947)
Photo by Carl Van Vechten
|Francis Hall Johnson|
|Born||March 12, 1888|
|Died||April 30, 1970 (aged 82)|
|Genres||Spiritual music, classical|
|Instruments||Violin, viola, piano|
Francis Hall Johnson (March 12, 1888 - April 30, 1970) was an American composer and arranger of African-American spiritual music. He is one of a group--including Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Eva Jessye--who elevated the African-American spiritual to an art form, comparable in its musical sophistication to the compositions of European Classical composers.
Francis Hall Johnson was born on March 12, 1888, the fourth of six children of Alice Virginia Sansom and William Decker Johnson, who was a bishop in the AME Church. Johnson received an extensive education. He attended the private, all-black Knox Institute and earned a degree from Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina. He also attended Atlanta University, the Juilliard School, Hahn School of Music, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Johnson's debut as a professional violinist occurred in a concert in New York in 1910. He went on to play the violin and viola professionally, including in the orchestra for the 1921 musical, Shuffle Along. Johnson played in the orchestra led by James Reese Europe as it accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle on tour, and he played with the New York Syncopated Orchestra, led by Will Marion Cook in 1918.
In time, however, he became more interested in choral music, forming the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, the first of many choral ensembles, in 1925. The group first performed professionally at the Pythian Temple in 1928. Johnson and his choir became renowned through their participation in the 1930 Broadway production of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures as well as in national and international tours of the play, radio versions, the 1936 film adaptation, and Hallmark Hall of Fame television broadcasts.
Johnson would also go on to arrange music for and conduct his choir in more than thirty feature-length Hollywood films, besides a number of short films and cartoons. Johnson wrote Run, Little Chillun, which premiered on Broadway in 1933 and was produced in Los Angeles in 1935 - 1937 under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project. Another production of the folk opera was featured in San Francisco in 1939 as an exhibit of the Works Progress Administration at the Golden Gate International Exposition.
Also in 1937, the Hall Johnson Choir was featured in the soundtracks of the Frank Capra film, Lost Horizon , Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Hal Roach's Zenobia. In 1941 they returned for yet another Disney film, Dumbo, specifically for the song "When I See An Elephant Fly"; Johnson himself voiced one of the crow characters, the Preacher Crow. Some members of the choir also provided voices to these characters as well except Cliff Edwards, who voiced the lead Jim Crow.
In addition to his theatrical work, Johnson wrote the Easter cantata Son of Man, which premiered at New York's City Center in 1946, the same year that the Hall Johnson Choir sang in Disney's Song of the South. In 1951, the Hall Johnson Choir was selected by the United States Department of State to represent the United States at the International Festival of Fine Arts held in Berlin, Germany.
Johnson wrote of the spiritual:
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.
Johnson was fluent in both German and French. Among the singers he coached were Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin and Shirley Verrett. His arrangements of the spirituals have been recorded by some of the world's finest artists.
Johnson, aged 82, died during a fire at his New York apartment on April 30, 1970.
In 1975, Johnson was posthumously honored for his work in films by being elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
|1938||My Old Kentucky Home||Leader of Hall Johnson Choir|
|1941||Dumbo||Deacon Crow||Voice, Uncredited|
|1942||Heart of the Golden West||Choir Leader||Uncredited, (final film role)|