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Arts and Culture News

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.

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