Research and Writing


I believe scholarship is about storytelling and that the stories scholars tell ought to advocate for empathy. In both the classroom and in my research, I try to model an ethnographic approach to such storytelling to understand musical practices among overlooked communities in the United States.


University of Illinois Press, 2019

"Through careful historiography and close attention to sound, Johnson expertly maps the intersections of voice studies, Mormon doctrine, race and religion, and the worlds of American musical theater. Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America convinces us that theology, theatricality, nationality, and vocality are entwined in Mormonism and extend in fascinating ways into American popular culture."

—Jeffers Engelhardt, author of Singing the Right Way: Orthodox Christians and Secular Enchantment in Estonia

"Mormon theatre has been studied before, whether as Victorian vignette or parochial propaganda. But here Jake Johnson illuminates theatricality in religion itself, with Mormonism as his focus. I encountered surprises throughout, the kind that stay with you like corrective lenses."

—Michael Hicks, author of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted the vocal and theatrical traditions of American musical theater as important theological tenets. As Church membership grew, leaders saw how the genre could help define the faith and wove musical theater into many aspects of Mormon life.

Jake Johnson merges the study of belonging in America with scholarship on voice and popular music to explore the surprising yet profound link between two quintessentially American institutions. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Mormons gravitated toward musicals as a common platform for transmitting political and theological ideas. Johnson sees Mormons using musical theater as a medium for theology of voice—a religious practice that suggests how vicariously voicing another person can bring one closer to godliness. This sounding, Johnson suggests, created new opportunities for living. Voice and the musical theater tradition provided a site for Mormons to negotiate their way into middle-class respectability. At the same time, musical theater became a unique expressive tool of Mormon culture.

Lying in the Middle: Musical Theater and the Heart of America
(under contract, University of Illinois Press)

Lying in the Middle advocates for understanding the kinds of cultural, religious, and identity work musicals enact in communities not normally associated with the genre, including fundamentalist religious groups, aging populations, and those living in rural areas. As a series of ethnographic studies, this book also presses the discipline to take seriously the lived experiences of musical theater, especially among communities outside Times Square. 

Beverly Hills Housewife: Betty Freeman, the Music Room, and a Story about New Music in Los Angeles
(under review)

Beverly Hills Housewife tells of the salon series the new music patron Betty Freeman hosted in her Beverly Hills home from 1980 to 1994. This book situates the growth and development of the American avant-garde within one room of one woman’s suburban home, offering a compelling snapshot of Freeman’s love for innovative (and often radical) music-making. 

I have also crafted Beverly Hills Housewife to be a creative discovery of what it means to write about and study objects of the past. The book balances the equation between what is true and how it comes to be true. It is at once a collection of primary sources, a biography of place, a memoir of history making, a meditation on historiography, and, to some I’m sure, an irreverent something-else.