Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pioneer Recording Artist George W. Johnson

Phonograph in operation in 1879.
by John Adcock

‘The Whistling Coon’ was copyrighted by Sam Devere of New York on December 26, 1888. Devere renewed copyright again on November 15, 1916, for a further 28 years. Devere was a banjoist/comedian who performed Negro and Dutch roles in Negro minstrelsy. He wrote a companion to the song with ‘Mammies Little Blackface Child’ with a whistling refrain. He was said to have composed over 1000 songs including a waltz called ‘Milking the Cows with Mary,’ ‘I Had But Fifty Cents,’ and ‘Riding on the Elevated Railroad.’ Devere managed and starred in his own large touring company headlined as ‘The One –The Only – The Whistling Coon’ and often played the song accompanied by “a Whistling Chorus.”

Devere, who died of cancer in March 1907, was born in New York in 1842. He served the Union during the Civil War and took up burnt cork opera in 1862, singing comic and topical songs in blackface. He was employed with Haverley’s, Clevelands, Dupree and Benedict’s minstrel shows and during the eighties was considered the highest salaried performer of his class in the world. He formed Sam Devere’s Specialty Company in 1890 (later Sam Devere’s Own) and toured North America and Europe.

The first person to record the song (as far as is known) was a former Negro slave and “high school graduate” named George W. Johnson. He followed up by recording ‘The Whistling Girl’ and ‘The Laughing Song.’
“Even aside from his compositions there are few men in the United States who are indirectly more generally and more pleasantly known than old Johnson, for he is the G.W. Johnson whose voice so frequently greets the investors of nickels in slot phonographs. From Dawson City to the Gulf of Mexico, in hotels, in railway stations, in saloons, in mining camps and in private houses, wherever the phonograph and its half-sisters have followed on the heels of the tin can and civilization, the old Negro’s voice and whistle and laugh may be heard.”
George W. Johnson
Johnson was well-known to travelers on the ferryboats and streetcars for luring pennies from their pockets with his “liquid bird trills,” set to the popular songs of the day. The New York Times said “his notes were as perfect as a flute.” Johnson was often described as the composer, and he probably was, as recorded in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in February 1905.
“Devere was inspired to write the song by a shabby, careless Negro, who used to sing on the ferryboats plying between New York and New Jersey. The Negro was a quaint character and rather phlegmatic. He scarcely ever spoke to anyone, and after each song he would pass around the hat and earned his living this way. While waiting for contributions the Negro would continue to whistle. Devere induced him to talk one day, and the two came to know each other very well. The darkey told a lot about himself, and after Sam had composed a song about him, the man was invited to hear Devere sing it and was pleased. Devere knew that he had a fine piece of property and had the song copyrighted, an unusual procedure in those days.”

Johnson was invited to perform in a private house where Senator Levi P. Morton took up a collection that raised $100 for the whistler. He caught the eye of the phonograph companies and began a very successful recording career, starting with ‘The Whistling Coon’ released May 1890 as a wax cylinder recording. Sources differ as to whether the recording was made for Victor Emerson or the Edison Phonograph Company. Johnson recorded for various early phonograph companies. The process of wax cylinder recording was described by a newspaper in 1893

“In “charging” the little wax cylinders used upon the Edison phonograph for recording and reproducing speech or song, the singers or instruments whose notes are to be recorded are placed as closely to the large speaking horn of the phonograph as is possible in a room from which all other sound is carefully excluded. If there is more than one singer or instrument they are grouped in a semi-circle. Four or five, sometimes as many as seven phonographs are arranged also in a semi-circle. The sounds are recorded on all simultaneously, but not with equal perfection, some of the cylinders being better than others. By this process, if a large number of cylinders are needed to supply all the phonographs controlled by the company, the music is simply repeated as many times as is necessary. After testing the cylinders are then ready to be placed upon the phonographs at the railway stations, seaside resorts and other public places, where the curious audience of one drops a nickel in the slot…
A much more rapid process is used by Edison in his works. What is called a “master record” is made upon a single cylinder, which is used similarly to the matrix in the stereotyping process for reproducing or multiplying the cylinders as many times as may be desired.”
Tim Brooks noted in Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1918 that publicity material stated that Johnson had recorded (possibly for Edison) during the tinfoil phonograph period circa 1878-79.

Johnson’s first wife had died in 1896 in circumstances authorities determined was the result of an accidental fall from a window. On October 12, 1899 Johnson was accused of murdering his common law wife, Ruskin Stewart, a singer who performed under the name ‘The Blackbird.’
“She was a mulatto with a good voice and had often appeared in the concert halls of the Tenderloin district, singing the songs which Johnson helped make popular. Up along Seventh Avenue where many people never sleep at night, Miss Steward was known as “The Blackbird.” After a time she began to drink a good deal and finally descended from the concert halls to the corner groggeries, where men and women, black and white, sit in stuffy back rooms drinking from midnight to dawn.”
There are various differing newspaper stories but it seems a police man named McManus was standing on the corner of Eighth and Forty-first Street when Johnson ran up and said there was a woman in trouble. He led the way to a basement room where Stewart lay unconscious on the sofa with blackened eyes and a wound oozing blood at the side of her mouth. Johnson said Stewart returned home about 2:30 in the morning, drunk, and in the condition described. She had probably been injured by some women she travelled with. Johnson was arrested and Stewart died two hours later without regaining consciousness. Neighbors claimed Johnson often punched her in the eye when she came home drunk. About three months before Stewart had apparently shot Johnson in the leg.

Johnson was lodged in one of the tombs in the oldest prison in New York at Bayonne, New Jersey to await trial. His friends stood by him, saying he “has not the heart to drown a mouse.” He entertained the inmates at Christmas by whistling ‘Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Home sweet Home.’ The keeper described his whistling
“If ever God meant a man to whistle like a bird it was that old coon. Either by nature or as a result of long practice, there was a depression in the upper and under lips just to the right of the middle of his mouth and through this the marvelous strains came like the twitter of a canary.”
He was described as an old man during his trial but guesses as to his age ranged from 52 to 72. It seems Johnson was born a slave in Wheatland, Virginia, circa 1843 or 1846, and moved to New York in either 1873 or 1876.

A subscription for his defense was started by Victor Emerson, superintendent of records at the Columbia Phonograph Company. “There is hardly a phonograph man in New York today who has not subscribed…” $1000 was raised.

The stab wound in Stewart’s face was later found consistent with that done by a hatpin. Johnson was acquitted and mobbed by well-wishers. Much was made of the fact that “white and black women rushed up to kiss him.” A party of friends, including Mr. Moore, the son of the slave owner who owned Johnson and his father, led him away to a hotel, “singing and whistling,” for a celebratory dinner. As he went down the steps of the Court House he was reported to be whistling ‘I Don’t Care if I Never Come Back.’

Johnson finished his days working as a doorman and died poor in 1914. His grave is at Maple Grove cemetery, on Kew Gardens Road, in Queens, New York.

In 1898 the Rochester Chronicle reported another ‘Whistling Coon,’ a fifteen year old hobo named Charles Johnson who traveled the railroads with a boot-blacking kit to earn money when whistling failed to draw customers pennies.
Just as the shades of night were falling over the crowded city on Saturday, there blew into the Central-Hudson station a piece of humanity just a shade darker than the fast falling night. Whither he came, or how, would never be known unless he chose to tell.
He was known as both “Railroad Murph, the Boy Wanderer of the Rail,” the “legitimate successor of ‘Railroad Jack, the renowned dog tramp of the railroads’” and “The Whistling Coon.”
Negro minstrel Eugene Stratton was the original singer of the ‘Whistling Coon.’ The “Whistling Coon of St. James Hall” already held the sobriquet in 1887, in London, when he performed at a Christmas party got up for pugilist’s Jake Kilrain and Jem Smith by George Washington “Pony” Moore. Moore kept a mansion in John’s Wood, formerly owned by Blondin, the hero of Niagara. Eugene Stratton and boxer Charlie Mitchell were Pony’s sons-in-law. After supper the guest’s smoked and gambled, followed by a dance. Eugene Stratton “sat at the piano, dressed as an Irish coon, with red and green swallow-tail coat and an exaggerated chimney pot hat, playing polkas and waltzing.”

The New York Sun called ‘The Whistling Coon’ the “most successful comic song of the age.” Stratton was performing the song nightly in London with the Moore & Burgess minstrels to such acclaim that several imitators popped up on the American stage. London music hall singer Lottie Collins added the song to her repertoire in 1889. The orchestra music would stop while Lottie danced and the audience shouted out the chorus. Her rendition was a hit at Tony Pastor’s on an American tour that year. Billy McIntire billed himself as “the Original whistling Coon” in 1890. He played the upper floor of the St. Paul, Minnesota Museum. A year later Sam Devere, the composer of the song, formed his own variety show, performing as the “Original” and playing the song with banjo accompaniment. His burnt cork company was still traveling the rails in 1903.

George W. Johnson’s recordings of ‘The Whistling Coon’ can be heard HERE.


  1. Very interesting!
    Thanks John

  2. I am the Maple Grove Cemetery Historian and I thank you for writing this article about the remarkable George Washington Johnson. I am also the President of the Friends of Maple Grove and we create events and programs that highlight those individuals found at Maple Grove.
    Further information can be found at our website
    One of our upcoming projects is to erect a monument to George Washington Johnson. Sadly he was buried in an unmarked grave. We would very much like to remedy that as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of his passing in 2014.
    Thank you
    Carl Ballenas

  3. He deserves that honor indeed !!!