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January 18, 2008

Lost Sounds

Lost Sounds

When Tim Brooks first heard the name George W. Johnson back in the 1980s, he had no idea his research would lead to a little-known but crucial chapter in the birth of the recording industry.

For 30 years after commercial records first began being sold in 1890, some of biggest stars were African Americans. And the biggest star of all for an entire decade was George W. Johnson, a former slave and street performer in New York. His "Laughing Song" was heard in Victorian parlors across the country, where he never would have been welcome in person.  

But there were many others as well: early precursors of jazz and rhythm and blues; a spoken recording no one knew existed of the controversial Jack Johnson, first black heavyweight champion of the world; and music by a baritone named Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced spirituals to Antonin Dvorak, who then incorporated the music into his New World Symphony.

They're all collected on an album called Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, which won a Grammy last year as Best Historical Album. Tim Brooks talks about the thrill of discovery in uncovering these little-known gems.

Your Story - Katarina Cerny

After Dick talked to Tim Brooks, Katarina Cerny wrote to The Story about what she heard:

When I was a child growing up in the former Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 60s, my father sang Negro spirituals every night to me and my sister. Even though I did not understand the words, I (like Dvorak) loved the melodies. I always wondered why my father, who trained as an opera singer, was so drawn to the spirituals…
-Katarina Cerny

Katarina's father recorded himself singing some of his favorite spirituals before he died. Katarina talks to Dick about how much it means to her now to hear her father sing, and how the spirituals touched his heart.

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