Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Saturday, September 26, 2015


From 1891, here's the first recording by an African-American, George Johnson.  It's a sign of the times that the song was titled "The Whistling Coon."  (I feel creepy just typing the words.)

George Johnson was born a slave in Virginia in 1846.  Raised as the servant and companion to a white farmer's son, Johnson was taught to read and write.  He was freed in 1853.  Around 1870 he made it to New York and earned small change whistling on ferry boats and sidewalks, which is how he was discovered.  "The Whistling Coon" (again, feeling creepy) was a popular vaudeville song at the time Johnson recorded it.  It became highly popular and by 1895, this song and Johnson's "The Laughing Song" were the best-selling recordings in the United States.  By 1905, Johnson's popularity had faded and he worked as an office doorman until moving back to Harlem several years later.  He died in 1914 from pneumonia and myocarditis.

Following his death there were rumors that he was either lynched or had been hung for murder.  He did have at least two common-law wives.  The first was found dead in their apartment, but no charges were filed against Johnson; the second was found beaten in their apartment and died several days later.  Johnson was arrested by murder but was found not guilty.

Johnson's 1986 recording of "The Laughing Man" was included in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2014.  As of 2014, only 425 recordings of cultural, historic, and aesthetic import to life in America have been included in the Registry.  (Others entered into the Registry that year were both the Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee versions of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," a 1942 radio episode of The Goldbergs, Louis Jordan's "Caldonia," Art Blakey's 2-volume recording of A Night of Birdland, "Cathy's Clown" by the Everly Brothers, Vaughan Meader's The First Family, the original cast recording of Sweeney Todd, and Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah.")

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