First recording of lost James P. Johnson blues opera ‘De Organizer,’ libretto by Langston Hughes

September 7, 2023
"De Organizer" performance. Image courtesy: SMTD
“De Organizer” performance. Image courtesy: SMTD

Paired with Johnson’s previously unreleased first opera, ‘The Dreamy Kid,’ premiere recording

After only one verified complete performance at Carnegie Hall in May 1941, “De Organizer,” the opera by James P. Johnson and Langston Hughes, vanished.

The opera was thought to be totally lost until 1997 when the late James Dapogny, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, uncovered an unusual manuscript in the university’s Bentley Historical Library.

Eva Jessye, chorus master—famously of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess”—and U-M lecturer, donated her collection to the university, beginning U-M’s African American Music Collection at SMTD, and establishing the Eva Jessye Collection at Bentley. Within her collection, Dapogny uncovered a preserved partial vocal score of “De Organizer.”

With the support of Barry Glover Sr., Johnson’s grandson and head of the James P. Johnson Foundation for Music and the Arts, Dapogny worked to restore the full opera, and in 2002 the U-M University Symphony Orchestra completed two unstaged concert performances conducted by U-M professor of music and director of university orchestras, Kenneth Kiesler; the first performance of the work in more than a half century.

In this opera, African American sharecroppers consider creating a union under the vision of “The Organizer,” while facing pressure and intimidation from “The Overseer” not to unionize; ultimately the sharecroppers overpower “The Overseer” and the union is established.

"De Organizer" performance. Image courtesy: SMTD
“De Organizer” performance. Image courtesy: SMTD

“When Jim Dapogny visited Barry Glover, looking for a score or manuscript containing the orchestral parts of De Organizer, he found a second one-act opera,” Kiesler said. “It’s called ‘The Dreamy Kid,’ based on a preexisting play by Eugene O’Neill. On the cover, Johnson scrawled ‘would make a great evening with De Organizer.'”

In “The Dreamy Kid,” a grandmother on her deathbed is visited by her grandson Dreamy, who, unbeknownst to her, is running from the law after killing a white man. Dreamy sings that the white man “was de one lookin’ for trouble” and that the white man boasted to others that he would “get” Dreamy. Dreamy then learns that the police know where he is, but his grandmother’s plea for him to stay with her through her final hours convinces him to remain by her side and await the approaching police rather than try to escape.

"The Dreamy Kid" performance. Image courtesy: SMTD
“The Dreamy Kid” performance. Image courtesy: SMTD

U-M’s University Opera Theatre, the USO and University Productions realized Johnson’s vision by producing a double bill of fully staged, costumed performances of both operas, which included the first-ever performances of “The Dreamy Kid,” in March 2006. Two months later, the cast of U-M students and USO, with Kiesler conducting, recorded the operas in Hill Auditorium on U-M’s campus.

The first full recording of these important works will be released Sept. 8 by Naxos Records. The recording, conducted by Kiesler, features principal singers Darnell Ishmel, Monique Spells, Kenneth Kellogg, Elizabeth Gray, Lori Celeste Hicks, Rabihah Davis Dunn, Olivia Duval, Emery Stephens, Lonel Woods and Branden C.S. Hood, and the USO.

"The Dreamy Kid" performance. Image courtesy: SMTD
“The Dreamy Kid” performance. Image courtesy: SMTD

“Had the singers—students at the time—brought only their vocal prowess to the table, it would have been impressive enough, but they also made real these characters and their stories,” Kiesler said.

The aim of this recording and the future publication of the printed music is to make these historic pieces available to the public while shining a light on the operatic compositions of Johnson. The project is part of the ongoing commitment of U-M SMTD to bring attention to underrepresented composers and their work.

In 2020, carrying this commitment further, Kiesler and SMTD launched Michigan Orchestra Repertoire for Equity to commission, premiere and record 10 works by underrepresented composers over 10 years, which will include an upcoming performance of Nkeiru Okoye’s “When the Caged Bird Sings” in February 2024.

Johnson, perhaps best known for composing “Charleston”—the accompanying dance of which defined an era—served as mentor to Fats Waller and was a known influence on pianists Count Basie, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. “De Organizer” may have been lost, but over the years it has not been forgotten.

Kiesler—the only conductor who has seen the score of “De Organizer” since 1941—also questions whether the original score was lost, or intentionally made to disappear.

The content, particularly for its time in Jim Crow era America, was controversial, with its debut and only performance at a workers’ union convention making a powerful statement.

“‘De Organizer’ was premiered at Carnegie Hall during a convention of the Ladies Garment Workers’ Union,” Kiesler said. “We have inherited the understanding that the only printed music, the music used for the premiere, was lost and never found after the premiere.

“Perhaps it was simply boxed up with other conference paraphernalia and lost. But I wonder how this could have happened, and whether it was lost inadvertently or intentionally. It was not unheard of for some music by Black composers to be put aside or to go unpublished.”

With the original music still lost, Kiesler has gone so far as to ponder whether the release of this recording might prompt someone to come forward with the music originally used at the premiere. Only time will tell.