Born A Slave, Street Performer Was First Black Recording Artist

In 1890, George Washington Johnson became the first African-American to make commercial records. The Library of Congress is now adding Johnson's "The Laughing Song" to the National Recording Registry.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1890, George W. Johnson, a former slave, became the first African-American musician to make commercial records. During his short but successful singing career, Johnson sold thousands of recordings. But his contribution to the music industry has been mostly ignored. The Library of Congress is now recognizing George W. Johnson's contribution to music. Last week, Johnson's "The Laughing Song" was added to the National Recording Registry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUGHING SONG")

MARTIN: The registry preserves audio that is, quote, "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." There are now 400 pieces of audio in its collection. Tim Brooks is the author of "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry." He told us why "The Laughing Song," by George W. Johnson, is now drawing attention

TIM BROOKS: What was so special about George W. Johnson was that he was able to re-create the experience of a street singer. He kind of slurred his words a little bit. His voice was sharp and penetrating, and his whistles were sharp and penetrating, of course. And most singing, in those days, was very formal and very much note by note from the music. He was very naturalistic compared to the other kinds of singers and recordings that people would hear then.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUGHING SONG")

BROOKS: It was a very racist time, of course. Blacks were excluded from all kinds of lines of work. And for him to be able to become a star of this new, nascent industry that was just starting was remarkable. It showed that the color line apparently didn't apply to records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUGHING SONG")

BROOKS: George W. Johnson was born in Virginia, in 1846. He was born a slave to a 15-year-old father and a 13-year-old mother. And very early in his life, he was taken by their owner, who was a prosperous farmer, into the farmer's home and made the playmate of the farmer's own son. And he was freed. In the 1870s, he migrated to New York City and became a street performer, basically, working for pennies and coins, singing songs on the streets of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUGHING SONG")

BROOKS: There was some embarrassment about him, too - even in the black community - because the songs he had sung, and had become so popular in the 1890s, basically mocked blacks. And they weren't considered racist at the time but by 1914, the NAACP had been founded. And there was a movement underway to improve the lot of African-Americans. So he was kind of pushed out of the public consciousness in the 'teens and '20s, and so forth. His records went out of print, and he was pretty much forgotten for many years after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUGHING SONG")

MARTIN: That was Tim Brooks speaking about singer George W. Johnson, the first African-American to make a commercial recording.

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