Champaign label preserved 1890’s recording named to National Registry

Apr 3, 2014

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. IPR'S Jeff Bossert has more: 

The 25 selections just announced by the LOC for preservation for its ‘cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance’ include, ‘The Laughing Song’, done in 1896 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 cites the song’s ‘ragtime-imbued’ accompaniment, but Archeophone records co-owner Richard Martin says it depends on what recording archivists are listening to, noting 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. They’re done different each time. He’s singing differently each time. Sometimes it was done as a ragtime song.”

Champaign-based Archeophone preserves public domain recordings made from the 1890’s through the 1920’s. And 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 Johnson’s death.  His unmarked grave was recently discovered in New York City.  A local historical society plans on dedicating a plaque at that site next week.