Early Black Artists and Composers


The early 20th century was a period of extreme segregation and discrimination in America—the era of the "color line." One of the few arenas in which African-Americans were allowed to demonstrate their talents was in show business, including the then-new recording industry. In this program we hear a selection of popular songs written and/or performed by African-Americans, some folk-based, some spirituals, some from vaudeville, Broadway or, the minstrel show, and some featuring the exciting new music called "ragtime" (which would eventually give birth to jazz). The artists range from George W. Johnson, the first black recording star (in the 1890s), to white vaudevillian Al Bernard, "The Boy from Dixie," who popularized the work of black composers in the 1920s. Also heard are the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers in one of their earliest recordings. —Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. (University of Illinois Press, 2004).