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Dr. Jake Johnson

Dr. Jake Johnson

Dr. Jake Johnson,
Associate Professor of Musicology
School of Music


I am a scholar of American music. My research and teaching trace intersections of music and sound with religion, aging, materiality, media, and the economy. I am particularly interested in the everyday work music, voice, and sound do for people—how communities perform with and listen to one another through musical values. In doing this kind of thinking, I draw upon a wide range of disciplinary thought, including anthropology, communications, religious studies, theatre and performance studies, film and literature, art history, sound studies, and voice studies, and weave these strands of thought through ethnographic and archival approaches.

My work has foremost explored the lived experience of musical theater among religious communities in America. My first book, Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America (University of Illinois Press, 2019), examines how Mormons (Latter-day Saints) frame their religious identity by, and perform a unique theology through, conventions of American musical theater. While many are aware of the 2011 Broadway juggernaut The Book of Mormon, the relationship actual Mormons share with musical theater begins much earlier when, in 1830, Joseph Smith founds the Mormon Church in Fayette, New York, and, in the same year and just down the road, minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice premieres his blackface character Jump Jim Crow. The foundations of what would become, in Harold Bloom’s words, “the American religion” and a quintessential American musical genre were laid almost simultaneously, both in time and place. This book charts the remarkable journey Mormons and musicals make across the wide, shifting landscape of American myth and American history. Along the way, Mormons transform from a nineteenth-century social pariah to become by mid-twentieth century emblematic Americans as they make a place for themselves by learning how to perform and sound like Americans. I explore how Mormonism adopted the vocal and theatrical qualities of musical theater, becoming so indebted to issues of sound and voice that I suggest Mormonism operates as a “theology of voice.” At the center of this study, then, is the voice itself—a central marker of belonging in Mormonism, American musical theater, and, consequently, in America itself.

My second book, Lying in the Middle: Musical Theater and Belief at the Heart of America, is expected in 2021 from the University of Illinois Press. In this book, I theorize and conceptualize the Middle space musical theater maintains in America—between professional and amateur, urban and rural, fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, truth and deception. I focus on communities in the middle of America who, for various reasons, use homegrown musicals to distance themselves from truth. I make the case that musicals are a particular form of lying. I then build upon anthropologist Mary Douglas’s work to promote these sorts of lies as no less than “stories out of place.” In this moment when truth and facts have lost currency, I suggest lies have more to offer the world than is often admitted. Whereas musicals promote lying as a means of imagining worlds unlike our own, I conclude that we must first fiercely embrace and commit to the Middle space of lying in order to jolt ourselves out of the current post-truth malaise and move toward building a world that is more in line with our hopes of justice, reconciliation, and community. Whatever web of deception musicals spin for Americans, this book claims we desperately need more of it and now.

Beyond my work on the American musical, I have written on the post-human sound worlds of the indie group CocoRosie, the time travels of iconoclast American experimental composer Harry Partch (1901-1974), and West coast patron Betty Freeman’s (1921-2009) support of new music. I am at the moment finishing writing an experimental book on Freeman’s music salons titled Beverly Hills Housewife: Betty Freeman, the Music Room, and a Story of New Music in Los Angeles. A list of recent publications can be found here.

I advise a number of undergraduate and graduate student projects, and former students are now completing doctoral coursework in musicology at Harvard University and the University of California, Riverside. I work closely with my students to develop healthy writing habits and then use those writerly skills to build a creative relationship with the past.

In addition to my work as a musicologist, I maintain an active vocal coaching studio. I also regularly collaborate as a pianist with students and faculty in chamber music, song, and stage productions, and can be heard around Oklahoma City playing with Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma in the summers and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic throughout the year.

I completed post-graduate work in musicology at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Chicago, and earned my PhD in musicology at University of California, Los Angeles in 2017. When not teaching, playing, or writing about music, I work with my wife and two daughters on restoring the historic home we lovingly call Joan.

Contact Information

Room FA316
Fine Arts Building
Oklahoma City, OK 73106