George W. Johnson, a pioneer in American recorded music

George W. Johnson
Thu, 1846-10-29

The birth of George Washington Johnson in 1846 is celebrated on this date. He was a Black singer and musician, and a pioneer in American recorded music.

He was born into slavery and his birthplace is unknown, but Johnson moved to New York in the 1870s and became a street performer. His songs "The Whistling Coon" and "The Laughing Song,"' both essentially minstrel pieces, were the most popular American songs the 1890s record industry. Technology didn't allow for duplicating Edison cylinders at that point, so Johnson, with a pianist backing him, sang each of his songs thousands and thousands of times, at about .20 cents each. An estimated 25,000 copies were in print by 1894 alone.

"I heard some people say here comes the dandy darkey, here he comes this way," are Johnson's lyrics in "The Laughing Song." "And when I heard them say it, why I'd laugh until I'd cry," are others, and laugh he did. It has been noted that listening to Johnson laugh was scary to hear considering his plight as a Black man in early America.

George W. Johnson died apparently of natural causes in 1914, while working as a doorman for the Lyceum Theater in Manhattan in the employ of Len Spencer.

Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 by Tim Brooks
University of Illinois Press

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Johnson, George Washington