Elder Anderson Johnson (1915-1998) was a visionary artist with a lifelong devotion to the Gospel.
His paintings can be found in the Smithsonian and other major museums around the world as well as the Anderson Johnson Gallery in his hometown of Newport News, Virginia.
Born 70 miles outside of Richmond, Virginia in 1915, Johnson started preaching at the age of eight and traveled all over the country for some 40 years doing so. At age 19, he saw the U.S.A. in a beat-up Chevy; and in 1952, Johnson was singing gospel on a street corner in Miami when Henry Stone walked by and offered him a record deal.
In January 1953, Rev. Johnson’s “God Don’t Like It” came out on Henry Stone’s Glory label. Anderson Johnson is the credited songwriter as noted on the label. Even at 91 years old, Stone remembered with a smile on his face Johnson’s record. And his famous story about it is cited in a new book about Elder Anderson Johnson titled A Man Inspired by God: The Life and Art of Elder Anderson Johnson.
Here’s what authors Yvonne J. Carter and Vernon L. Carter had to say about this project in a recent phone interview.
Interview by ©Jacob Katel 2018 All Rights Reserved.
THANK YOU FOR D0CUMENTING THIS FASCINATING AMERICAN HISTORY! WHO IS ELDER ANDERSON JOHNSON?
YVONNE: Anderson Johnson was a wonderful person. He was a preacher, a folk artist, and a musician who played and sang while traveling across America.
VERNON: He was a complex individual who had so many talents. He was gifted, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. When he played, he put everything into it. Whether it was his steel guitar, keyboard or drums, he put all of his heart and soul into it. When he sang and played his steel guitar, he didn’t need a crowd. He could praise the Lord by himself. Sometimes he would wave one hand or just pat his foot. He was never concerned about how people perceived him. He was very spiritually aware. He was my friend.
YVONNE: Elder Johnson often sang for us when we visited him, but we didn’t know he had recorded anything until later. He told us the BBC had come to his home to record him singing, and I think that was the first time he mentioned his music to us. The Music Makers Foundation also recorded him.
HOW DID YOU MEET?
VERNON: My mother told me about an article she read about Anderson Johnson in her local newspaper, the Daily Press. I collect folk art, and I decided I was interested in his art after seeing the article in the paper. So I traveled to Newport News and found him.
HOW DID HE MEET HENRY STONE?
YVONNE: Anderson Johnson was singing on Second Avenue in Miami when Henry Stone happened to walk by. Stone liked what he heard and invited Elder Johnson to his studio for a recording session. Johnson said he chose to record “God Don’t Like It” because generally people seemed to enjoy it. The studio immediately filled up with people who heard him singing, and Henry Stone knew he had a hit. Johnson said the records began flying off the shelves, and the next week he sang his song on the radio. However, Elder Johnson did not brag about himself. He was such a humble man who basically talked about God, and he gave God the glory.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE THIS BOOK?
YVONNE: We decided to write the book because Elder Johnson’s artwork is outstanding, and we had collected a substantial number of his paintings over the years. Articles about his work have appeared in newspapers and periodicals such as the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Daily Press, the Washington Post, and the Folk Art Messenger. The list is extensive. His artwork has been exhibited at museums, art galleries, and colleges and universities throughout the United States. He became well-known because of his art. However, he first began spreading the word of God with his music. He was eight years old when he was touched by God and called to preach. He was still a young child when he found a job shining shoes at a barbershop on Huntington Avenue in Newport News. He earned enough money to buy his first guitar and taught himself to play the instrument. By the time he was 19, he was traveling throughout the United States preaching and singing. We decided to write the book because Johnson’s art is captivating, his music is riveting, and his life was fascinating.
HOW DID HE END UP IN MIAMI?
YVONNE: When Elder Johnson was 12 years old, he joined the United House of Prayer where Bishop Charles M. Grace was the leader. Johnson, who had been preaching since the age of eight, traveled with Bishop Grace establishing houses of worship or churches in black communities from New York to Miami. Today, there is a United House of Prayer on Second Avenue in Miami.
HOW LONG WAS HE IN FLORIDA?
YVONNE: At age 19, Elder Johnson began traveling alone singing and preaching up and down the eastern seaboard. He traveled to Florida quite often, and he was back and forth to Miami. In fact, close to 20 years later, Johnson was staying in Miami when he met Henry Stone.
VERNON: After traveling approximately 40 years of his life, he started his Faith Mission because of his vision and his close connection with God.
WHAT PORTIONS OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA DID HE TRAVEL?
VERNON: Jacksonville was one place he stayed a long time. His nephew, Andrew Johnson, told us Elder Johnson often traveled to the African-American beaches along the eastern seaboard. He stayed near American Beach in Jacksonville more than two years and established a church there. From there he went to Tampa and eventually to Miami. He also stopped in other small towns and black communities along the way.
WHAT TYPE OF MUSIC DID HE PLAY?
VERNON: Elder Johnson persisted that he never played the blues. His music may have sounded like the blues, but the lyrics were sacred. The music was essentially the same as the blues, but it was gospel music. He insisted that he played and sang only to draw others to God.
YVONNE: He was also influenced by the music in the United House of Prayer where cymbals, tambourines, trombones, steel guitars, and drums were a part of the worship service. The only musical instruments heard in most African-American Baptist and Methodist churches during the 1940s and 1950s were the organ and the piano. Things have changed now. Currently, most black churches regardless of the denomination want bands, combos, and mass choirs in their praise and worship services.
VERNON: If someone in a Baptist church in the 1950s stood up and used a tambourine, they were looked at strangely.
WHAT IS THE HOUSE OF PRAYER?
YVONNE: As I mentioned earlier, the United House of Prayer was founded by Bishop Charles M. Grace during the early 1920s. He was also known as “Daddy Grace.” He was a charismatic religious leader who established houses of worship in black communities throughout the United States. He was featured quite often in the black press and in publications like Ebony and Jet magazines.
DID ELDER ANDERSON JOHNSON HAVE MANY ORIGINAL COMPOSITIONS? DID HE PLAY STANDARDS, COVERS, OR A COMBINATION OF ALL?
YVONNE: “God Don’t Like It” was recorded by at least three people. Many sources show that Blind Willie McTell wrote and recorded “God Don’t Like It” in 1935, and gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe recorded another version of the song with Decca Records later. Johnson had already written a substantially different version of “God Don’t Like It” when he recorded with Henry Stone in 1953. Johnson indicated that he preferred to change the lyrics and sing his own version of songs. Most of Elder Johnson’s recordings were gospel versions of traditional hymns and spirituals.
HOW DID HIS RECORDINGS DEVELOP OVER TIME?
VERNON: Music was just one of Anderson Johnson’s many spiritual gifts, among prophecy, ministry, and creative art. I really don’t think a recording career was one of his goals. I think Henry Stone’s encounter with Johnson in Miami was more providential than anything else. Elder Johnson’s main goal was preaching and spreading the Gospel.
YVONNE: I remember Elder Johnson mentioning that a gentleman in New York offered him a recording contract to play the blues. However, Johnson said he turned him down because he could only play the Lord’s music. He never pursued a recording career. As a matter of fact, it was more than 50 years after recording with Henry Stone and Elder Johnson was 78 years old when a music crew from Germany came to Newport News to record him. Johnson loved music, but for him music was just a means of furthering his ministry.
VERNON: His primary goal was to influence the lives of others through his ministry. He was truly on a mission for God.
YVONNE: I believe many of the occurrences in Johnson’s life were preordained. For instance, he was first interviewed by a newspaper because Tony Shaffer with William and Mary College happened to walk pass his home and saw his paintings. Shaffer contacted the Daily Press, and they wrote an article about Johnson. Shortly thereafter, he was featured in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Then, he appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and he was seen all over the world.
WHAT DID ANDERSON JOHNSON CARRY WITH HIM AS A TRAVELING MUSICIAN?
VERNON: He probably carried his Hawaiian guitar and an Epiphone guitar.
HOW DID HE GET INTO THE HAWAIIAN GUITAR?
YVONNE: His discovery of the Hawaiian guitar was also providential. Elder Johnson said a dream came to him one night, and he heard the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When he woke up the music stayed with him. Later, he was visiting relatives in Philadelphia and stopped by a pawn shop and described the music he heard in his dream. The shop owner showed him a Hawaiian guitar. Johnson tried playing the guitar and said, “That’s it!” It was the same music he heard in his dream.
VERNON: He loved that thing. When he played it and the spirit hit him, he would start shouting. He would be so moved . . .
ARE THERE ANY OTHER INTERESTING FACTS THAT PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW?
YVONNE: Anderson Johnson’s art demands attention and has been exhibited throughout the United States. One of his paintings is housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and his artwork appeared in the one of the largest exhibits on visionary artists. His paintings have been exhibited at the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center in Newport News; Hampton University; the University of Richmond; the University of California, Berkeley; the San Diego Museum of Art; the North Carolina Art Museum; and many others. Also, his art is exhibited in the House of Blues clubs in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and others across the United States. We immediately recognized his artwork when we visited the House of Blues in Los Angeles several years ago.
WHAT IS VISIONARY ART?
VERNON: Visionary art is created by self-taught artists who are not from a particular school and who are not influenced by others. It is naive, pure art that comes from the heart. When Anderson Johnson painted, God spoke to him and directed his hand on the canvas. Visionary artist are not concerned about a correct or incorrect method of painting. Initially, Anderson Johnson experienced art deep down within his heart and soul. However, his artwork changed over the years as others began to influence him.
WHAT IS YOUR HISTORY?
VERNON: I consider myself an art historian. My father and all of my brothers are artists. As a matter of fact, my father and one of my brothers were commercial artists. I became interested in Elder Johnson’s work because of my love and appreciation of art. Although I am particularly interested in American and European paintings, I collect all types of art.
YVONNE: I have been a writer and editor most of my life, and I have a background in journalism. I have personally collected several of Elder Johnson’s paintings.
HOW DO YOU WORK TOGETHER AS A TEAM?
YVONNE: Vernon interviewed Anderson Johnson in the early 1990s. The interview is a significant part of the book because Johnson tells his own story. Vernon also photographed more than 55 images of Johnson’s paintings, and he photographed Elder Johnson and his Faith Mission over the years. Many of these photographs are included in the book. I completed most of the research.
VERNON: Yvonne researched the majority of the information regarding Elder Johnson’s life, music, and art. In addition, we provide a description and an analysis of each painting in the book.
YVONNE: The average viewer will look at one of Johnson’s religious paintings and appreciate its beauty and vibrant colors. However, in most instances, there is a deeper, spiritual message in many of these paintings.
VERNON: Yvonne was able to use the Bible to connect the message with the scripture in certain paintings.
YVONNE: Well, whenever we talked with Elder Johnson, he would frequently back up everything he said with scripture.
VERNON: Yvonne looked at the art in a biblical sense and her narratives of the paintings are beautiful. We each contributed a lot to the book, and we worked well together.
HE WAS PROLIFIC!
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO PROMOTE?
VERNON: The city of Newport News established the Anderson Johnson Gallery at the Downing Gross Cultural Arts Center. It is a permanent exhibit titled “Working in the Spirit – the Life and Times of Elder Anderson Johnson 1915-1998.” The gallery is a replica of Johnson’s Faith Mission. It is just like his actual church and includes his old oil stove as well as a reproduction of the restroom. The city even commissioned a wax figure made in an amazing likeness of Johnson. The figure is an indication of how important Johnson was to Newport News. If you visit the gallery, see the film “Bound for the Promised Land.” There is footage of Anderson Johnson preaching and singing.
YVONNE: Mary Kayaselcuk is the curator of the Anderson Johnson Gallery. She also was a friend of Elder Johnson. She was instrumental in preserving many of the artifacts from the Faith Mission and acquiring a large quantity of his paintings. The Anderson Johnson Gallery is an excellent representation of Johnson and his life. Each time we visit the gallery, we realize how much we miss him. We are trying to keep his vision alive by writing this book.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SONGS YOU REMEMBER HIM SINGING FOR YOU?
VERNON: He usually sang “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again,” “I’m Gonna Do My Best,” and “Let that Liar Pass On By.” He also sang traditional gospel songs like “I Know the Lord has Laid His Hands on Me.”
WHAT WILL THE BOOK BE TITLED?
A Man Inspired by God: The Life and Art of Elder Anderson Johnson by Yvonne J. Carter and Vernon L. Carter.
Interview by ©Jacob Katel 2018 All Rights Reserved.