Hall Johnson

The Musicians Behind Negro Spirituals

Hall Johnson was a composer and arranger of Negro Spirituals. He, along with Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Eve Jessye, was able to find success through his work with Negro Spirituals.

Born Francis Hall Johnson in 1888 in Athens Georgia, Johnson played the violin, viola, and piano. He became familiar with Negro Spirituals through his mother and grandmother as a child. He was one of six children and the son of an AME bishop. He was a graduate of Atlanta University, the Julliard School, Hahn School of Music and the University of Pennsylvania. He taught himself how to play the violin after hearing it played by Joseph Henry Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass.

Johnson began his career as a professional violinist in 1910 and performed in the 1921 music Shuffle Along. In 1925 he formed the Johnson Negro Choir and in 1923, he began acting as the violinist for the Negro String Quartet.

Johnson wanted to preserve the legacy of Negro Spirituals. Instead of having them performed in a traditional European manner, Johnson sought to present Negro Spirituals in an authentic fashion. Through his choir, originally known as the Harlem Jubilee Singers, he became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1946 Johnson formed the Festival Negro Choir of New York and in 1965 published an essay entitled, “Notes on the Negro Spiritual”. His accolades were numerous and his influence widespread. His legacy will continue to live on and his efforts to preserve Negro Spirituals in their original essence will continue to benefit future generations.

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