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African American Songwriters and Performers in the Coon Song Era: Black Innovation and American Popular Music James M. Salem

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In terms of the traditional music business (sheet music), the success of African Americans in the coon song era began with writers who were primarily professional live performers who came out of the minstrel show, such as James Bland and Ernest Hogan. By the mid-1890s, however, it was an occasional live performer who was primarily a writer that enjoyed the greatest success: Gussie Davis. By the end of the decade, the new generation of black musical talent tended to be dedicated writers: Cole, the Johnson brothers, Dunbar, and Cook. In the emerging new music business (sound recording), the seminal figure turned out to be an amateur performer who became, at best, an accidental writer named George Washington Johnson. Almost forgotten today by both music and African American historians, Johnson is not only "the first Negro to become widely known because of his recordings" [53] but "the recording industry's first widely-known star." [54]

George Washington Johnson was born a slave in 1846 in Virginia. His parents were illiterate teenagers, but he was raised by a prosperous farmer's family as the servant and companion to their son. Johnson learned to read and write along with "Master Samuel," though this was clearly illegal, and when Samuel learned to play the flute George became an expert whistler of every tune he heard. Within the context of antebellum slavery he was treated very well. Johnson's father was set free when the boy was seven years old, making him free as well. He may have taught school after the War, but in the mid 1870s, when he was in his late twenties, he moved north. He appears in the New York City census of 1880, listing his occupation as "musician" and his residence in the Hell's Kitchen section of the city. He was a "street artist" who sang at ferryboat terminals, Tim Brooks says in Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, "a poor black man who whistled and sang jaunty tunes for coins of passersby." Luckily for him, his whistling was the perfect talent for the early recording business. Stringed instruments, pianos, and women's voices recorded poorly given the primitive technology of the time, but brass instruments, flutes, and whistlers recorded well. Another element to his advantage was his race. The recording industry believed that Negro voices transcribed better than whites because there was a "certain sharpness or harshness about them." [55]

The concept of a popular music chart was not developed by Billboard until the 1930s, but there are ways of deducing the popularity of recorded songs as early as 1890. Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music employs record industry periodicals (primarily Phonogram, Phonoscope, and Talking Machine World), sheet music sales figures, ASCAP and other lists of top songs, record label catalogs, and the research of Jim Walsh to establish an early pop chart. For more than forty years, Walsh wrote a monthly column called "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists" that appeared in Hobbies Magazine. Still considered the authority on the acoustical era, Walsh focused first on popular recordings made before 1909 and later on all artists who recorded before 1925. [56]

According to Whitburn, the first three number one hits in 1890 were instrumental recordings of Sousa marches by the Marine Band: "Semper Fidelis," "Washington Post," and "The Thunderer." The first number one song with lyrics was a coon song sung by a white performer. [57] Len Spencer's "(Little) Liza Loves You," charted at number one for four weeks in March and April, 1891—the first of his forty-five solo hit records between 1890 and 1910 (he had an additional twenty comedy hits with his partner Ada Jones). [58] The second and third hit songs with lyrics (also coon songs) came a few months later from George Washington Johnson. "The Laughing Song" was the number one record for ten weeks in April, May, and June 1891, and "The Whistling Coon" was the number one record for five weeks in July and August. These songs marked the beginning of white America's prolonged fascination with Negro recorded musical talent. Alec Wilder suggests that black music "had to wait its opportunity to come directly to white audiences through Negro performers," and it was not until the late nineteenth century that this was possible. But when it happened, Negro music "truly got loose." [59]

In "The Laughing Song," Johnson laughs infectiously in time with the music. The persona in the song is a "dandy darky" with "snowplow" heels and a mouth "like a trap." He could be the "King of Africa," he is told, but that remark makes him laugh until he cries. The repeated refrain is:

Then I laugh ha ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha,

I couldn't stop my laughing ha ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha,

Ha ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha,

I couldn't stop my laughing ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

There are two historic firsts involved in Johnson's "The Laughing Song": it was the first appearance on the chart by an African American performer, and, since Johnson copyrighted the song, the first appearance on the chart by an African American composer.

For many years there was doubt that a former slave like Johnson could have written "The Laughing Song," but Tim Brooks suggests that he had the necessary literacy. He believes the copyrighted song indicates "a talented, literate writer—or someone who had a lot of help," but he notes that it also incorporates the same "'coon song' mockery of the black man." The laughter was an excellent hook, however, and the recording "quickly became the rage on coin machines around New York." [60] Whitburn says Johnson "reportedly recorded his famous infectious laugh some 40,000 times" before mass production was possible. [61] This is probably the song referred to in 1906 by Music Trades Review as the one he performed fifty-six times in a single day. [62] Talking Machine News, in an article titled "Laughing for a Living—the Jolly John Nash of the States," claimed that Johnson had "the most infectious laughter in the country." He was the "original 'haw-haw' man, and practically every laughing song heard on the phonograph is sung by him. He even figures in some songs, which have only a few bars of laughing chorus or a laughing line." [63]

Besides laughing, Johnson's other specialty was whistling. "The Whistling Coon," a conventional coon song with lyrics such as "funny queer old coon," "liver" lips, and "cranium like a big baboon" was a hit song interpolated into the play The Inspector, performed by Johnson himself for $25 a week. The hit song got interpolated into the play The Inspector, performed by Johnson himself for $25 a week. (He was able to get the generous salary because he said he could make $15 singing for the boats plus his recording money.) Unlike the debatable authorship of "The Laughing Song," "The Whistling Coon," is known to have been written by black minstrel Sam Devere, making George Washington Johnson the first black performer on the (white) pop chart and the first performer of any color to record material written by an African American. Brooks points out that in American race relations "one agent of change that has been little recognized was the early recording industry." The new technology, he says, "provided opportunities for a minority that was excluded from other fields of endeavor" and was run by young, white entrepreneurs who "did not have the luxury of enforcing irrational social conventions like 'the color line.'" [64]

The Columbia Phonograph Company of Washington covered "The Whistling Coon" with a U.S. Marine Band instrumental, with a white "artistic whistler," and then with another white performer, though no other versions succeeded like Johnson's originals. In the 1890s, songs were not yet associated with particular performances by a singer, so any company that was first to the market, or cheapest, had the advantage. Brooks calls the manner in which the New Jersey company fought off competition for Johnson's songs "a daring strategy in those race-conscious days. It not only publicized the fact that Johnson was black but even printed pictures revealing his very dark complexion. Johnson's obvious good nature (he was a 'safe Negro'), and the comedy of a black man mocking his own race, won over listeners everywhere." Johnson's two specialties "became instant standards, closely identified with the emerging entertainment phonograph. They never failed to entertain and their novelty never seemed to wear out; anyone operating a phonograph parlor had to have them." [65]

George Washington Johnson may have done his first recording work in Newark, New Jersey for the United State Phonograph Company (New Jersey Records), or it could have been in Washington, D.C. for Columbia. He "seems to have been available equally" to the New Jersey Company in Newark, to the Edison Company in West Orange, to Victor in Philadelphia or Camden, and for the Columbia operation in New York. His records were also listed in catalogs by the Bettini Company, Kansas City Talking Machine Company, the Talking Company of Chicago, Edison, U.S. Everlasting Company, Berliners, Wonder Bell, and Zonophone. Though he recorded many songs, his "Two Great Specialties" were "Whistling Coon" and "Laughing Song." By 1894, the Edison catalog alone estimated the sales of these songs at "over 25,000." As Jim Walsh says, "And Johnson had made those records, remember, by singing them over and over, with not more than five copies turned out at a time!" [66]

Brooks estimates that Johnson might have been able to produce sixty to one hundred "saleable cylinders" in an afternoon and that he must have done eighty sessions a year at four dollars per session ($320 per year) to get the 25,000 figure over 3 1/2 years. "References in 1898-99," he says, "suggest that Johnson was then earning from ten to one hundred dollars per week for his phonographic work" plus cash from his street singing. The average white worker at the time was making five hundred dollars per year. Other artists had larger bodies of work (Len Spencer had 140 titles in the 1892 New Jersey catalog, including minstrel records with Johnson's laughter), but no one sold so many copies of a single title. "His fame," Brooks says, "was based on two numbers. By the end of the decade, the sheet music for "The Laughing Song" claimed more than 50,000 records sold. By that time Len Spencer had sold 62,000 records, but he had released an astonishing 600 titles in a variety of styles that diluted his influence. [67]

Johnson thrived in the 1890s, becoming famous as a hit-producing recording artist. If there were a "Pioneer Recording Artists' Hall of Fame," Walsh believes, George Washington Johnson should be in it. [68] However, his career declined in the 1900s, and he died destitute in 1914. His hit songs on America's pop chart may have been groundbreaking, but he has all but been forgotten as America's first black recording artist. For one thing, his two hits pale in comparison to Bert Williams' thirty-three hits from 1904 to 1922. Moreover, his career seems a clear illustration of how narrow the parameters were for professional black musicians in the early recording era. After all, the success he enjoyed must be measured by the mainstream audience's insistence that he play to the crude racial stereotypes that it demanded. His successor, Bert Williams, a light-skinned, urbane, and sophisticated West Indian who spoke flawless English, could not expand the parameters either.

In 1910, as Johnson's life began a serious slide, Bert Williams had already registered fifteen pop hits. While there is no trace of Johnson in the New York City census of 1910 (Brooks believes he was probably sleeping in the backroom of Len Spencer's office building), [69] Bert Williams could be found nightly at the Ziegfeld Follies, becoming Broadway's first "regularly featured" black performer. [70] There are, however, some similarities. Like Johnson, Williams emerged through the coon song: he and his partner George Walker came to popularity by billing themselves as "The Two Real Coons." [71] There was also commonality in terms of the performers' repertoire deemed acceptable by the mainstream audience. Johnson's "Laughing Song" and "Whistling Coon" were his only recordings to succeed, and Williams' "Nobody"—a more dignified song lyrically but a coon song nonetheless—eclipsed every other song he recorded or performed. "Nobody" became a hit in 1905, biographer Ann Charters explains, "and audiences responded so enthusiastically that he was forced to include it for the next seventeen years in nearly every stage appearance." [72] Late in his career, Williams wrote in American Magazine that before he got through with "Nobody" he wished those who had written the words and music (he had written the music himself) "had been strangled or drowned or talked to death." He had tried to replace the song, he said, but "audiences seemed to want nothing else." [73]

There is no question that Williams had the greater success and made considerably more money. In 1910 his annual earnings were estimated at $25,000 to $40,000, [74] but after shaking hands with his white fans and accommodating their autograph requests, he still could not ride the elevator at his hotel or enter the dining room. [75] "I am often treated with an air of personal and social condescension by the gentleman who sweeps out my dressing-room," he told a reporter, observing that America was "the only civilization in all the world where a man's color makes a difference, other matters being regarded as equal." [76] As a stage performer he was never "able to leave off the burnt cork mask, the make-up he hated," one reason that fellow Follies star W. C. Fields observed, "Bert Williams is the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew." [77]

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James M. Salem is Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.

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