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    Auction Finds

    Dialect songs of James Weldon & J. Rosamond Johnson

    I was going through some dusty and dirty containers of old Edison cylinder records from the early 1900s when I saw a name I recognized. It surprised me because many of the tunes, singers and songwriters were people I’d never heard of (except for Irving Berlin).

    This one was very familiar: Rosamond Johnson, brother of writer and poet James Weldon Johnson – both creators of the song considered the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

    J. Rosamond Johnson (that’s his full name) was listed on the paper container holding the cylinder as the writer of a song called “Run, Brudder Possum, Run.” As soon as I saw the title, it was a let-down and I knew what the song was about.

    J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson

    Four of the cylinder records I bought at auction with songs that featured dialects or were stereotypical.

    I had seen others like it among the 45 Edison and Columbia recordings I had bought at auction. This was the first time I had bidded on the cylinders, although I had often come across those beautiful old wooden phonographs that played them.

    I was certain that this song by Johnson mimicked the most popular form of vaudeville tunes around at that time: coon songs (oh, how I hate that term) that denigrated African Americans and painted them as stereotypes. Several other cylinders and containers also had been identified with the phrase, including “Cohan’s Babe Rag” and “I Get Dippy When I Do That Two-Step Dance.” One of the paper containers had a handwritten label with a derogatory title, but the cracked cylinder inside was not marked.

    Curious about the Johnsons and these early songs, I went sleuthing. I couldn’t quite juxtapose the remarkable black men who created “Lift Every Voice and Sing (written in 1900 for a program celebrating Lincoln’s birthday at a school where James Weldon was principal),” “The Creation (a 1927 poem by James Weldon)” and “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (also by James Weldon)” with vaudeville tunes.

    J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson

    The container tops of two of the cylinder records. The “Run, Brudder Possum, Run” box did not contain the correct record.

    They were creating these works during a period when such songs were immensely popular. Singers clamored for them and the major recording companies of the day – which were releasing at least 15 new records a month – were scrambling for them. Once a company marketed them as coon songs, according to one website, they sold well. Some white performers, such as Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan, made their mark and their money singing them over and over again for different labels.

    The country’s first black recording artist grew out of this period: George W. Johnson (no relation to the other Johnsons). Starting in the 1890s, he wrote several such songs and recorded for various companies, including RCA Victor, Columbia Records and Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Co.

    I couldn’t find any songs by the other Johnsons that used the term in the titles, but they did use dialect –  a language much different from their works that I’m familiar with. Even with the dialect, “they tried to rise above the popular coon song format and give pride and dignity to African-Americans through their songs,” as one speaker noted at a 2011 music-industry conference.

    J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson

    In left photo: Bob Cole (seated) and J. Rosamond Johnson. In right photo, James Weldon Johnson.

    Here’s what a Billboard magazine writer wrote in a May 24, 1949, story about J. Rosamond:

    “‘We want to clean up the caricature,'” this cultured composer told the late Edward B. Marks, who published most of his works, and since his chief ambition was to win greater respect for the Negro thru sincere and honest music, he refused to write any song that might cast discredit on his sadly burlesqued race. In using his talent to help overcome racial prejudice and discrimination, Rosamond Johnson was a pioneer in the field of popular music just as Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson have been in the more recent years in the world of sport.”

    Around 1900 or so, the Johnsons teamed up with Bob Cole who had written some of these derogatory songs and sang them in vaudeville shows. Like them, he later decided to use his music to show the dignity of black folks. J. Rosamond and Cole developed a vaudeville act that found them dressed in fine clothes, with Rosamond at the grand piano playing and both of them singing their own compositions. James Weldon seemed to have worked sporadically with them, instead becoming a U.S. consul to Venezuela and then joining the NAACP as a field worker and general secretary as he continued to write.

    Cole spoke of trying to “retain the racial traits of Negro music while avoiding the vulgarity of the coon song.”

    J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson

    Sheet music for “Louisiana Lize,” the first song sold by the team of Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson in 1899.

    The team’s first work was a love song called “Louisiana Lize” in 1899 that, as one website noted, “left out the watermelons, razors, and hot mamas.” It was written, however, in dialect (“All de time I’m working I’m a thinking ’bout my darling”), which James Weldon would later tire of and reject because he felt it enhanced the stereotypes, according to the 2010 book “Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow.”

    The three also wrote two all-black operattas for Broadway, “The Shoo-Fly Regiment” in 1906 and “The Red Moon” in 1908. J. Rosamond and Cole wrote “Under the Bamboo Tree” in 1902, which was very successful in this country and Europe, and “Congo Love Song,” which aimed to show black people as no different from whites.

    Some of the titles of their dialect songs and the lyrics made me cringe, though. There seemed to be a duality of soul in their music: On one hand, they produced songs without dialect, with lyrics demonstrating that they were talented men (J. Rosamond was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, a producer, singer and actor; and James Weldon was a poet, lawyer, journalist, novelist, U.S. consul and NAACP official).

    J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson.

    The inscriptions on these two cylinder records from the Edison company describe the types of songs on them.

    It was much like the young man in James Weldon’s fictional “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” which tells the story of a young light-skinned black man who has to decide whether to live under the tyranny of discrimination or as a white man living without the prejudices evoked by his skin color.

    Here are the lyrics for “Possum”:

    ‘Simmons ripenin’ in de fall,
    You better run,
    Brudder ‘Possum, run!
    Mockin’ bird commence to call,
    You better run, Brudder ‘Possum, git out de way!
    You better run, Brudder’Possum, git out de way!
    Run some whar an’ hide!
    Ole moon am sinkin’
    Down behin’ de tree.
    Ole Eph am thinkin’
    An’ chuckelin’ wid glee.
    Ole Tige am blinkin’
    An’ frisky as kin be,
    Yo’ chances, Brudder ‘Possum,
    Look mighty slim to me.
    J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson

    Sheet music for “Roll the Bales of Cotton,” 1914, From Yale University Digital Content website.

    Some of their other songs focused on education, sweethearts, love and romance, black children (even though the term used for them is derogatory), singing and praying.

    J. Rosamond and Cole composed from 150 to 200 songs by the time Cole died in 1911. Some of their songs were recorded on cylinders for major companies, including “Roll the Bales of Cotton,” “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden,” “Lazy Moon,” “Nobody’s Lookin’ But De Owl And De Moon” and “Oh Didn’t He Ramble (about a son in an Irish family).”

    Some were labeled coon songs – as in the cylinder records and containers I got at auction – but I’m sure the Johnsons didn’t intend them to be identified as such.


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