The Hall Johnson Choir

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The Hall Johnson Choir is responsible for many of the greatest choir performances on stage and screen in the '30s and '40s. The group was formed by Hall Johnson -- arranger, composer, writer, and multi-instrumentalist…
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The Hall Johnson Choir is responsible for many of the greatest choir performances on stage and screen in the '30s and '40s. The group was formed by Hall Johnson -- arranger, composer, writer, and multi-instrumentalist -- in order to demonstrate the unique sense of rhythm and intensity that Afro-American culture could bring to a musical performance, an aspect he felt had been previously ignored by vocal groups utilizing what can best be described as standard white barbershop harmony. Johnson seems to have achieved nothing but success in this venture, the choir providing climactic moments in Hollywood's best-known black-oriented films from this era, such as Cabin in the Sky.

Without a doubt, however, the choir's largest audience has turned out to be children, and not just the ones who were around when the group was active. The Hall Johnson Choir perform in famous segments from several of Walt Disney's animated classics from the '40s, Dumbo and Song of the South. Ironically, the group's numbers in these films have been criticized as being demeaning to blacks, a knee-jerk reaction that inevitably involves missing out on more complex layers of meaning present in these segments. Many viewers, for example, miss out on in-jokes such as white singer Cliff Edwards -- another Disney regular famous for his Jiminy Cricket characterization -- playing a bird sarcastically named Jim Crow in his scenes with the choir, scenes in which Edwards was the only white performer involved.

Looming large over the entire Disney scenario is the presumption that the proud, highly intelligent Johnson would not have been willing to put up with overt racist content. His choir originally started out as an octet, the Harlem Jubilee Singers, then expanded into what was at first called the Hall Johnson Negro Choir in the fall of 1925. The group began recording for RCA Victor three years later, quickly moving onto Broadway with a suite of spirituals organized into a show entitled The Green Pastures, followed by a Johnson production entitled Run Little Chillun in 1933. In the '40s Johnson also had an additional, somewhat expanded choir, the Festival Negro Chorus of New York. The last major activity involving the Hall Johnson Choir took place in the early '50s, when the group was selected by the State Department for an international festival of fine arts held in Berlin, followed by a lengthy European tour.