George Washington Johnson at the peak of his career sold thousands of recordings. He is the first African-American singer to have made commercial records in the late 1800s. However, his contributions to the music industry as an African American have largely been forgotten, as reported by National Public Radio.
Recently, the Library of Congress included his song “The Laughing Song” in the National Recording Registry’s collection as part of efforts to celebrate his works. Johnson was born in 1846 as an enslaved African. Historical accounts say he was adopted by a white family by name the Moores, who wanted a playmate for the newly born child Sam.
His formative years were at the Moores’ farm plantation called Glenmore where he socialized with other white children and learned how to read and write. According to Tim Brooks, he probably learned music by sitting in on Sam’s music lessons.
In the 1870s, he relocated from Glenmore to New York where he became a street performer. He was acclaimed for his songs “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song” which were among the most popular records in the U.S. in the 1890s.
He spoke about social injustice and racial segregation against African Americans in his music. “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,” Brooks told NPR.
Johnson sold over 25,000 wax cylinders. At the time, every recording was a master copy. Johnson would record the same song multiple times, often fifty times each day. But by 1905, he was no longer required to record each copy individually since new recording technology enabled thousands of duplicate discs from a single master. Thanks to this, he wasn’t popular anymore.
Johnson had to move back to Harlem when economic conditions did not favor him. He had been employed as an office doorman by his friend Len Spencer who had become a successful artist and agent but Johnson started drinking heavily so he lost his job. That made him move to a small tenement room in Harlem where he died forgotten and alone on January 23, 1914, Brooks said. Johnson died from pneumonia at the age of 67. He was interred in an unmarked grave at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York.
Johnson would be known for breaking the racial barriers in the music industry by showing that an African American could sell thousands of records in an industry dominated by White players. But there was some embarrassment about him in the Black community because most of the songs that made him popular in the 1890s basically mocked Black people, Brooks said. “And they [those songs] 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,” Brooks explained.