Hall Johnson (March 12, 1888 – April 30, 1970) was one of a number of American composers and arrangers—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 in Athens, Georgia, the son of William Decker Johnson, an A.M.E. minister who also served a term as President of the church-affiliated Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina. Johnson received an extensive education which included a time at the Juilliard School. As a boy, he taught himself to play the violin after hearing a violin recital given by Joseph Henry Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass. He went on to play the violin and viola professionally, including in the orchestra for the 1921 musical, Shuffle Along.
In time, however, he became more interested in choral music, forming the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, the first of many choral ensembles, in 1925. Hall 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, as well as a number of short films and cartoons. He wrote Run, Little Chillun, which premiered on Broadway in 1933 and was produced in San Francisco in 1939 under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project. Also in 1939, the Hall Johnson Choir was featured in the soundtrack of the Frank Capra film, Lost Horizon. In addition to his theatrical work, Johnson wrote the Easter cantata Son of Man, which premiered at New York's City Center in 1946. 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 died during a fire at his New York apartment on April 30, 1970. In 1975 he was posthumously honored for his work in films by being elected to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
- Simpson, Eugene Thamon. Hall Johnson: His Life, His Spirit, and His Music. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008.