Recording Pioneer George W. Johnson

From 'Lost Sounds'

Hear three rare tracks sung by George W. Johnson from 'Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922' © 2005 Archeophone Records

Listen: 'The Whistling Coon'

Listen: 'The Laughing Song'

Listen: 'The Laughing Coon'

A promotional poster for George W. Johnson i i

hide captionA promotional poster for recordings by George W. Johnson — "the original whistling coon and laughing darkey."

University of Illinois Press
A promotional poster for George W. Johnson

A promotional poster for recordings by George W. Johnson — "the original whistling coon and laughing darkey."

University of Illinois Press

George W. Johnson may not be a household name, but he has a singular place in music history — the former slave and New York City street performer is, according to most accounts, the very first African-American recording artist.

This untitled photograph is believed to be a picture of Johnson recording a song.

hide captionThis untitled photograph is believed to be a picture of Johnson recording a song.

Library of Congress

The phonograph, or "talking machine," had been invented by Thomas Edison only few years before Johnson tracked a rendition of "The Whistling Coon," a racist minstrel song. That recording helped give birth to what we now know as the record industry.

At the time, there was no electronic amplification of a singer's voice — artists all but shouted into a cone-shaped device, and the sound waves moved a needle etching a rotating drum of hard wax.

Johnson's story is featured in Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, a new book and companion CD compiled by archivist Tim Brooks. Brooks doesn't believe Johnson resisted singing the racist tune.

"No, I think George Johnson had to march to the beat of the drum — that was very much in the hands of white America at that time," Brooks says.

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Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1891-1922 (CD)

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  • Album: Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1891-1922 (CD)
  • Artist: Various Artists
  • Label: Archeophone Records
  • Released: 2006
 

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