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Black Music Month #12

Okay, maybe not so nice to our modern sensibilities, but to pioneer George W. Johnson, a former slave, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the opportunity to record for twenty cents a song in 1890 for the New Jersey Phonograph Company was irresistible.  As Tim Brooks shares in his monumental and

Laughing to Keep From Crying

groundbreadking study Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of The Recording Industry, 1890-1919, Johnson’s gig made him the first African American recording artist.

Johnson’s father and mother were young teenagers when he was born, probably in 1846, though no accurate record can be found pinpointing his exact year of birth.  When as a child he was assigned to be the “bodyservant” to his master’s young son to whom he was close in age, he picked up a unique skill.  Young Master Samuel Moore took flute lessons, becoming an expert, and, according to Brooks, it was reported that “the slave learned to imitate the notes. Johnson could soon whistle any tune that he had ever heard.”

When slavery ended and Johnson migrated to New York City he came to the attention of Victor H. Emerson, who would become an early version of an A&R man for the struggling New Jersey Phonograph Company.  He was looking for something, “cheap and loud.”  Johnson fit the bill, and of all the popular songs he knew, the company wanted a sure shot: a novelty “coon song” written by the white vaudevillian Sam Devere.  Obviously degrading, but also able to elicit “a shower of nickels from the white folk.”

Sheet Music Cover to Another Johnson Hit

The songs lyrics poke fun at ubiquitous notions of the physical stereotypes of African Americans that circulated throughout American culture: the blackness of the skin, the size of the nose and lips; the irrational happy-go-lucky demeanor.  The music, set in a light rag style, could be heard in many parlor songs of the day.  Before the advent of musical recordings these pieces circulated in sheet music form, many with offensive depictions of African Americans.

Sheet Music Cover Art


Copyright, 1878, by Sam Devere.

Oh! I’ve seen in my time some very funny folks,

But the funniest of all I know

Is a colored individual, as sure as you’re alive,

As black as any black coon;

You may talk until you’re tired,

but you’ll never get a word

From this very funny, queer old coon;

He’s a knock-kneed, double-jointed, hunky-plunky moke,

And he’s happy when he whistles this tune:-(Whistles.)

Oh, lie’s got a pair of lips, like a pound of liver split,

And a nose like an injun rubber shoe,

He’s a limpy, happy, chuckle-headed, huckleberry nig,

And he whistles like a happy killy-loo;

He’s an independent, free-and-easy, fat-and-greasy ham,

With a cranium like a big baboon;

Oh, I never heard him talk to anybody in my life,

But he’s happy when he whistles this tune :-(Whistles.)

Oh, he’d whistle in the morning,

through the day and through the night,

And he’d whistle like the devil going to bed.

Oh, he’d whistle like a locomotive engine in his sleep,

And lie whistled when his wife was dead;

One day a fellow hit him with a brick upon the mouth,

And his Jaw swelled up like a balloon,

Now he goes along shaking like a monkey in a fit,

And this is how he whistles that tune :-(Whistles)