© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Recording Pioneer George W. Johnson

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.

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.