Champaign Label Preserved 1890’s Recording Named To National Registry
By Jeff Bossert
One of the recordings now part of the Library of Congress’ national registry is considered the first ‘hit’ song by an African-American. A Champaign-based record label is among those who have worked to preserve it.
The 25 selections just announced by the LOC for preservation for its ‘cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance’ include, ‘The Laughing Song’, recorded in the 1890's by George Washington Johnson.
Born into slavery in 1846, but later a New York City Street performer, Johnson is known as the first African-American to make records, have recorded six songs in the 1890’s.
The Library of Congress Wednesday cited the song’s ‘ragtime-imbued’ accompaniment, but Richard Martin, co-owner of Champaign-based Archeophone Records, said it depends on what recording archvists are listening to.
Martin noted there was no such thing as a 'master recording' in the 1890's.
“Since this song would have been recorded literally thousands of times by Johnson over the course of a 20-year period, then no two versions are alike," he said. "They're done differently each time. He's singing differently each time. The accompaniment could (include) a piano in the early days. And that piano accompaniment could be a very stayed and parlor-type accompaniment. But sometimes it was done as a ragtime song."
Archeophone preserves public domain recordings made from the 1890's through the 1920's.
The Johnson recording was part of their 2005 release "Lost Sounds - Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry" - their supplement to an earlier book that earned them a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
This month marks 100 years since George Washington Johnson's death. His umarked grave was recently discovered in New York City. A local historical society plans on dedicating a plaque at that site next week.
The 25 additions listed Wednesday by the Library of Congress means 400 songs and other recordings are now in the National Recording Registry.
Other examples named Wednesday include Isaac Hayes' 1971 'Theme from Shaft", recordings made by President Lyndon Johnson covering his entire time in office (1963-1969), Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" (1969) and the spirtual, "Were You There", recorded by lyric tenor Roland Hayes in 1940.