Photo of Audrey Johnson courtesy of Ms. Johnson / Of Thee I Sing
On Sunday, October 30, Audrey Johnson—trained opera singer and founder of Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song—will visit JCPL to present a special performance, “To Keep Truth Marching On!”.
We asked Ms. Johnson about the musical program and the inspiration behind her collection of one-woman shows. Read on to learn more, then join us on Sunday, October 30, 2:00–3:00 p.m. for the performance!
JCPL: We’re looking forward to your performance here at Jessamine County Public Library! What can we expect to hear and see during “To Keep Truth Marching On!”?
Audrey Johnson (AJ): Thank you so much for being such gracious hosts and for the opportunity to share with your community! “To Keep Truth Marching On!” is a multi-sensory experience involving historical songs and images, onstage costume transformations, and LOTS of audience participation.
Together, we will journey back in time to the period of our nation’s history in which many brave women—and men—were working together toward the goal of American women’s right to vote. We’ll explore how their stories can continue to motivate us to be positive, engaged, and inclusive American citizens today. To me, there is no better way to do this than through music, and there is a treasure trove of historical songs from throughout the Suffrage Movement.
As we’ll learn during the program, many of these songs were created by combining new texts supporting women’s suffrage with previously existing melodies. So, while the words of the songs you’ll hear during this program will probably be new to you, I am sure you will recognize many of the melodies. Get ready to sing along with us!
JCPL: What about the Women’s Suffrage Movement inspired this one-woman musical show? Is there a particular theme that most resonates with you?
AJ: The centennial of the 19th amendment in 2020 specifically inspired me to create a program on the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The resources I discovered during my research allowed the program to develop into something truly special. To be completely honest, I knew very little about the history of this Movement before I began my research; learning about all the brave suffragist patriots of our past was both empowering and humbling. I am much more appreciative of my right to vote now than before I began this program. It brings me genuine joy to share what I’ve learned with others.
As a musician, I was deeply moved by the vital role music played in the success of the Movement. Suffragists were tasked with the enormous challenge of shifting the perspective of an entire nation to one which viewed women as equal to men.
This is where the power of music made an impact because instead of trying to change people’s minds, it focused on opening their hearts. Creating new, pro-suffrage versions of familiar songs—especially sentimental ones—channeled people’s emotions, redirecting their original attachments towards the worthy cause of equal rights. In addition, these songs also helped suffragists to remain strong in the midst of the struggle. These discoveries made me realize the immense power of music to change the world!
JCPL: What’s it like to perform a one-woman show? Are there aspects of performing “alone” that you enjoy?
AJ: This is such a great question! One-woman shows can take many forms. In this program, I share various songs and stories from the Woman’s Suffrage Movement rather than portraying one character the entire time. Instead of focusing on becoming one particular character, I feel my role is much more of a ‘musical ambassador,’ a vessel for conveying these incredible stories to others, hoping that they will be as inspired by them as I am.
I also want the audience to be active participants rather than just passive viewers and listeners, so I actually don’t feel “alone” when sharing this program. Instead, I eagerly anticipate getting to know my audience members as they contribute their voices along the way. Music really does have the power to bring people together, and I can’t wait to experience this with you through the songs and stories of our nation!
JCPL: How did your company, Of Thee I Sing, come to be? What outreach work is done by Of Thee I Sing?
AJ: Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song is a patriotic performance platform with many programs about different periods throughout American history. The concept for Of Thee I Sing was inspired by the newfound appreciation of my country and fellow citizens after living abroad for several years. This physical distance from America for such a prolonged period gave me a new perspective to appreciate the wonderful nation and people we are. When I began planning to return home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to do more with my artistry.
This feeling grew until I finally faced it head-on and asked myself what the most meaningful performing experiences had been throughout my career. The answer came immediately: those which involved the most direct connections with the audience. From these combined revelations, I knew that upon returning to the U.S., I wanted to shift my focus toward performing experiences that would facilitate these personal connections with American audiences. I just wasn’t sure what theme these performances would focus on.
At the same time, I happened to be researching my family’s genealogy. I discovered that I have an ancestral patriot who was a Minute Man in the Lexington Alarm. This was deeply inspiring to discover and was the lightbulb moment I had been waiting for. Then, I knew that my mission was to bring American heritage to life through music and to inspire positive American citizenship through our nation’s music.
Because this is truly a mission that has been put on my heart, how others have encouraged and supported me means more than I can express. Due to this support, I am delighted to share that Of Thee I Sing will present programs in public schools and senior centers this year. In addition, we have ongoing collaborations with the Boys and Girls Club—featuring student performers and songwriters—and with the Girl Scouts as an official Patch Program.
JCPL: Are there composers or other folks involved with the production that you’d like to shout out?
AJ: Absolutely! This production would not be possible without the assistance of many people who have contributed their time, talents, and input. My mentor, Metropolitan Opera Bass-Baritone William Powers, gave me immense encouragement and guidance during the development process of this program, urging me to think outside the box of a typical recital, to add elements like costumes and spoken narratives to bring this period to life and make direct, authentic connections with the audience.
As you’ll see in the performance, costumes are indeed an integral element of the program. I am very grateful to my dear friend and professional costumer, Karrie Blees, for her incredible ingenuity, especially for creating a costume that is four dresses in one!
And, of course, the presentation of this program at JCPL would not be possible without the amazing efforts of the Bluegrass Opera and Music Theatre (BGO) under the direction of Lorne Dechtenberg! Lorne is one of those rare individuals who has many talents and succeeds in each of them at the highest possible level. In addition to being the Artistic Director of BGO and a fantastic composer and conductor, he is also a fabulous pianist, which we will experience firsthand during Sunday’s program.
Lastly, though we haven’t met yet, I would like to thank YOU, the audience, for participating in this program and making it a special experience for everyone. For a performance to be truly meaningful, there must be a connection with the audience; the energy has to flow from both directions. This is even more the case for a program such as this one, which is so interactive. Therefore, I sincerely thank you for coming and participating in this program. I hope it will be an enjoyable, educational, and inspiring experience for everyone!
See Audrey Johnson perform “To Keep Truth Marching On!” at Jessamine County Public Library on Sunday, October 30, 2:00–3:00 p.m. No registration is required.