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Pioneering African-American Recording Artist to be Honored at Cemetery

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | March 19, 2014 6:21pm
 A bronze plaque will be unveiled to honor George Washington Johnson at Maple Grove Cemetery on April 12, 2014.
A bronze plaque will be unveiled to honor George Washington Johnson at Maple Grove Cemetery on April 12, 2014.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

QUEENS — A 19th century African-American singer and recording pioneer, who is buried in a pauper's grave at Maple Grove Cemetery, will get a special plaque at his gravesite to mark the 100th anniversary of his death.

George Washington Johnson, who was born in Virginia as a slave in 1846, came to New York after the Civil War and recorded songs on some of the earliest recording instruments roughly 120 years ago, according to Carl Ballenas, a local teacher and Queens historian, who is also president of the Friends of Maple Grove.

Johnson was “the first successful African American to record music,” Ballenas said. “He recorded music with Thomas Edison."

Ballenas said a group of his students in the Aquinas Honor Society of the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates wrote the text for the bronze plaque that will be unveiled at the cemetery in April.

The plaque states that Johnson, who specialized in popular tunes, had “a talent for whistling and laughing in time with music."

"He recorded songs in 1890 for the Metropolitan Phonograph Company and with Thomas Edison on wax cylinders," the plaque states, noting that more than 50,000 copies of his songs were sold.

But the lyrics of some of his songs contained terms that are derogatory for African-Americans, according to information provided by Ballenas.

As Johnson's popularity declined, he struggled with a number of issues, including alcoholism and a murder charge for which he was found not guilty.

Johnson died in 1914 at the age of 67, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Kew Gardens, Ballenas said.

Tim Brooks, a television and radio historian, who wrote about Johnson in his book “Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922,” will be at the unveiling, Ballenas said.

A CD published with Brooks' book, which included songs performed by Johnson, won a Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Historical Album.

The MusiCares Foundation, Inc. provided the funding for the plaque, which will be unveiled on April 12, Ballenas said. A lecture and workshops are also being planned for that day.

The MusiCares Foundation and Tim Brooks did not immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment.