Lucid Culture


Russell Saint John Sings Hall Johnson’s Spirituals in NYC 2/25/10

Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.

It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.

Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.

February 26, 2010 - Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What an incredible concert – take it on the road, guys!

    Comment by Lee | March 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Dear Lee,

      Thank you so much. Yes, Doug and I are working on a tour. Hope to sing for you again.

      Russell Saint John

      Comment by Russell Saint John | March 2, 2010 | Reply

  2. ” Take my mother home ” was heart wrenching. Mr Saint John should be heard.

    Comment by Danuta Widlo | March 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Dear Danuta,

      You are so kind. I thank you for attending.

      Russell Saint John

      Comment by Russell Saint John | March 2, 2010 | Reply

  3. Oh, how I wish we could have heard this! Maybe a repeat performance when we’re back in town?

    Congratulations on the great review.

    Comment by Marj Long | March 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Dear Marj,

      Thank you so much. I should very much like to add you to my mailing list for future projects.

      Russell Saint John

      Comment by Russell Saint John | March 2, 2010 | Reply

  4. What a wonderful concert! We are so glad we

    Comment by Ji | March 1, 2010 | Reply

  5. What a wonderful concert! We are so glad we “waded through the water” of Thursday’s snow to witness this professional, inspiring program. Thank you.

    Comment by Jill and John O'Brien | March 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Dear Friends,

      Thanks to you all who attended the concert. I look forward to performing for you all again.

      Russell Saint John

      Comment by Russell Saint John | March 2, 2010 | Reply

  6. Was this concert recorded? From what I hear it should be! Let me know, I will buy!

    Comment by Naomi Moody | March 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Dearest Naomi,

      Thank you so much for your interest in the concert. Will be in touch with further details.

      Russell Saint John

      Comment by Russell Saint John | March 2, 2010 | Reply

  7. Ah, marvelous Russell. We also enjoy working with you and everyone @ Fordham as well, as it has become the highlight of our holiday season to perform with you all. Looking forward to seeing/performing with you soon!

    Comment by Jenise Grice-Reedus | March 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Dear Jenise,

      Thank you so much for you kind comment. I hope that we too may perform together in the near future. Keep making music.


      Comment by Russell Saint John | March 29, 2010 | Reply

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