Recording Pioneer George W. Johnson A new book, Lost Sounds, profiles a man named George W. Johnson, a former slave and New York City street performer who became the very first African-American recording artist — singing some very racist tunes.
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Recording Pioneer George W. Johnson

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Recording Pioneer George W. Johnson

Recording Pioneer George W. Johnson

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(Soundbite of music)

ED GORDON, host:

The song is called the Whistling Coon. It was recorded in 1890. The singer, a former slave and New York street performer named George W. Johnson. By all accounts Johnson was the first black recording artist. The phonograph or talking machine had been invented by Thomas Edison only a few years earlier, and Johnson's rendition of this racist minstrel song helped give birth to what we know as the record industry.

Johnson's story is told in a new book and companion CD compiled by archivist Tim Brooks. It's called Lost Sounds. I asked Brooks if he found any evidence that Johnson resisted singing this kind of song.

Mr. TIM BROOKS (Author, Lost Sounds): 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. He adapted. He had a certain integrity to him, and he did not cow-tow to everything they wanted him to do. But he knew that to fight, especially at his age and his station in life would be futile. So he went along and he sang songs that I'm sure must have been hurtful to him. But they were songs that were very common, very popular; they made him money; and he did what they told him to do.

GORDON: Two of those songs, perhaps the most famous and those that brought him the most fame personally, one called The Whistling Coon and the other, The Laughing Song. Let's talk about the first, and that's The Whistling Coon. This was a degrading tune, quite frankly.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. And that type of song, coon songs, so called, were very popular at the time, and were well accepted. Blacks sang them for entertainment purposes, as well as whites, despite the fact that they were mocking their own race, basically. This was a song that was written by a white vaudevillian and sung to some popular, been around for 10 or 20 years by that time. And Johnson, the gimmick, if you will, was that here was a black man, a very genial, kind of heavy set, older, black man singing this mocking song in a jovial way about himself; and the juxtaposition of those two things is the humor, I guess, in that song.

GORDON: What was it about the idea of having a black man do the song, versus a white man in black face? Was there a difference? Did audiences like one more than the other?

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. Originally, most black portrayals on stage and minstrelsy were by whites in black face, but as the minstrelsy went on in the start of the 1840s. And by the 1860s and '70s and '80s, there were black minstrel troops too. And by that time, Americans would accept a black man entertaining them. They wouldn't want him at the table for dinner or living in the neighborhood, but they would accept them as entertainers to some degree.

So the idea of a black man, particularly a non-threatening one, very jovial, easy to get along, friendly to everybody, always with a laugh, non-threatening, was the humor there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) [unintelligible]

GORDON: And certainly by today's standards this is raw and primitive. But it must have been tantamount to much of what we marvel today with computers and chips and the like to in that day be able to record sound and the voice.

Mr. BROOKS: Today, you hear about an artist who takes six months to get exactly the right track. Well, to record them there was no way to duplicate records. You recorded on a wax cylinder, a round Edison-type cylinder, and that was the record. There was no way to make a duplicate of it. So if you wanted two copies, you sang again. If you wanted three copies, you sang it again.

His two songs became popular at the time, popular meaning tens of thousands of copies, not millions, but a lot of copies. And so he had to keep singing those songs over and over and over again, but he was paid by the round, as it was called. By the time he'd sing a song once, he'd be paid 20 cents; he'd sing it again, he'd be paid another 20 cents. And because they needed so many copies, he had a lot of work.

(Soundbite of "The Laughing Coon" by George W. Johnson)

Mr. GEORGE W. JOHNSON (Singer): The Laughing Coon, by Mr. George W. Johnson, for Edison Records.

(Singing) Way down south where I was born, a [unintelligible], ha, ha, ha, can you hear me now? [Unintelligible]

GORDON: The other song, the Laughing Song and the novelty here was that he literally laughed in tune for much of this song.

(Soundbite of song "The Laughing Coon")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) [unintelligible] laughing coon, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Come out in the valley in the little fun room, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Mr. BROOKS: What made him so successful was that he performed just as he did on the streets with a kind of a southern drawl, almost kind of a drunken slur to his words. And yet every word was very distinct. And that was important then, because the recordings were so crude and it was so hard to make out what people were saying or singing on them, unlike today's digital recordings.

So he was able to mix that kind of loose and limber, almost drunken kind of drawl with clarity through this very difficult technology. And that's what they prized him for, and that's why he was so successful with these.

GORDON: Is it fair to say that this man was a celebrity? And if so, was he a celebrity in both the black and white community?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, you have to remember that the record industry was like a sideshow at the time. It was like a Carney business. Vaudeville was the big business. Minstrelsy was still big. The theatre was big. And these talking machines, as they called them, was just some little gimmick on the side. The really important artists would have nothing to do with them, and they wouldn't lower themselves to record for these squawking tin boxes.

So they got people like George Johnson to record instead. But they caught on very rapidly because the magic of music coming out of a box just amazed people. Nothing in the whole human history suggested you could do that. So they caught on. And by the end of the '90s--originally, you had to go to a phonograph parlor and put in a nickel to hear these, kind of like a jukebox. By the end of the '90s, they were selling them for home use, too. And George Johnson's two songs were always like the standard in any collection of records then.

GORDON: How important is this man's story to the history of African Americans who later, during obviously the ragtime era, the height of jazz, and on to today's Hip Hop entrepreneurs, how important is his story to the connection linking that day to what we know today?

Mr. BROOKS: He was the first in this industry. He had to make many compromises, and many of them make our skin crawl. But I think we have to recognize that the times he lived in, and what he fought against, and what he accomplished in that time. He was popular for more than 10 or 15 years in a time when blacks were rigidly--the color line it was called--were excluded from everything. And they didn't hide his race. They published his picture. And it was because he was black that he was popular.

He showed for the first time that an African American, this race that was just shut out of so many things, could make money for you, could be entertaining for you, could be non-threatening to you; and that has to count in terms of kicking open the door for others who gradually over the period of time were able to speak their own voice. And by the end of the 30-year period, they really were speaking their own voice.

GORDON: Well, the book and accompanying CD is called Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. And as you suggest, Tim, there is so much here that most people have no inkling about, and it's interesting reading, and certainly interesting to listen to. We thank you for your time, Tim Brooks.

Mr. BROOKS: You're welcome.

GORDON: You can learn more about Johnson's life and hear more of his music on our website at

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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