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'
University of Illinois Press
A promotional poster for recordings by George W. Johnson — "the original whistling coon and laughing darkey."
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.
Library of Congress
This untitled photograph is believed to be a picture of Johnson recording a song.
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.