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America the Ballad: Keeping history alive through song

Audrey Johnson ’05 founds solo touring company that combines history and music


History is often shared through old books or the spoken word. Audrey Johnson ’05 has made a career by telling it through song.  

A classically trained opera singer who earned a bachelor of music in vocal performance at Simpson, Johnson recently founded the solo touring company, Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song. The company offers concert programs that combine historic songs, authentic costumes, images and spoken narrative. The result is an interactive performance that allows the audience to experience history in a manner hard to accomplish through the spoken word. 

“By wielding the power of music, we’re educating people without them realizing it,” Johnson said. “These performances provide a direct portal into the day-to-day lives of historical figures. You can read their words, but when you hear words combined with music, there’s something all-encompassing that transports you through time. It has a way of staying with us that is so much more deep and lasting.” 

Simpson College music alum Audrey Johnson from the class of 2005

One stop on the tour was a virtual performance arranged specially for Women’s History Month at Simpson in March 2021. “We’ve Come a Long Way, Ladies! A Centennial Celebration of the 19th Amendment Through Song” featured songs inspired by the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

“She’s a singer, a teacher and a researcher,” said Michael Patterson, composer and former Simpson professor. “When you think about what all goes into her programs – the costumes, the music, all of it - she really had to do her homework in order to be accurate. I very much admire what she is doing.”  

Johnson credits her time at Simpson – specifically the vocal performance faculty – with preparing her for her current role. She first learned about composers writing for the voice of a particular singer in Maria DiPalma’s class and she credits former professor and current Board of Trustees member Virginia Croskery Lauridsen for her vocal training exercises, which she still uses to this day.

“I don’t think I could have founded Of Thee I Sing without my Simpson College foundation,” Johnson said. “There are few schools where students can get a conservatory-level degree and liberal arts education at the same time. I know people who attended conservatories, and they just don’t have the philosophy or literary background that I received going to Simpson. We were encouraged to take courses outside of music, and we’re better singers now for it.”

This story first appeared in the fall 2021 edition of The Simpson Magazine.