George W. Johnson turned controversy into cultural triumph as the first African American Recording Artist
Leadership has always been critical to our development. Some leaders have ruled by conquering while others have used their influence to effect change for the greater good. The power of leadership is that you don’t have to set out to become a leader to be one. Sometimes being yourself and taking fearless strides on your journey is powerful enough to forge a path for others to follow.
In the history of America, leadership is what brought freedom to African American slaves . Although America was established on liberal beliefs, those beliefs did not extend to people of color. Leaders worked to level the playing field despite these grave disadvantages, accomplishing great things in the process.
Today African Americans tour the world, own businesses, and produce music for the masses. About 130 years prior to this, George W. Johnson led the way as the first African American recording star. His success set the precedent for what we witness today.
All leaders aren’t created equal
George Washington Johnson was born in October 1846 in Virginia. He developed his musical talent as a child learning to read and write as well. During this time, literary skills were highly unusual among African Americans giving him a unique advantage.
He left for New York in his early twenties after growing up in rural Virginia. By the late 1870s, he was earning income as a street entertainer, specializing in whistling popular tunes. Staying consistent with his passion would eventually usher in new opportunities.
When Johnson was in his mid-forties he was recruited by two different regional phonograph distributors. Each of them were in search of recording artists for their coin-operated machines. They both encouraged him to record his signature whistling on wax phonograph cylinders. Even though they chose him to record, they charged him a fee of twenty cents per two-minute performance.
One of his first recordings for both companies was a popular song called “The Whistling Coon”. Although the song was given a derogatory title, it’s creation was historical. George whistled and sang on the song. He even included a rambunctious laugh in musical pitch. That laugh sparked his second hit “The Laughing Song”.
Foundations are laid for others to walk upon
Johnson produced other material as well, but those two songs were the main focus of his career. His other material was not acknowledged so he continuously performed and recorded the two popular songs for years. By 1895, both “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song” were the best-selling recordings in the United States.
George began to phase out as technology advanced in the recording industry, but his accomplishments remain etched in time. His songs don’t necessarily paint Black people in a good light, but they did make room for change. His success foreshadowed what was to come in the future for African American entertainers.
George W. Johnson passed away at the age of 67 after suffering from pneumonia and myocardium. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave in Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. In 2013, the Maple Grove historical society launched a campaign to honor him. They received a grant from the MusiCares Foundation for his grave site. On April 12, 2014, he was finally recognized in a ceremony. Around that same time, his 1896 recording of “The Laughing Song” was added the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Knowing where we come from gives us a better understanding of where we are today. Where we are has a lot to do with the actions of those who came before us. Where we’ll end up depends on the actions we take while living in these moments. We have the power to become leaders in our own right and do things that will affect generations. The future depends on us and we must do something about it now while we have the chance.
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