Profile: John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)

John Rosamond Johnson was an American composer and singer during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he had much of his career in New York City. Johnson is noted as the composer of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It was first performed live by 500 Black American students from the segregated Stanton School (elementary/middle/junior high-level), Jacksonville, Florida, in 1900. The song was published by Joseph W. Stern & Co., Manhattan, New York (later the Edward B. Marks Music Company).

J. Rosamond Johnson was the younger brother of poet and activist James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.The two also worked together in causes related to the NAACP.

Biography

J. Rosamond Johnson was born the son of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas, and James Johnson. His maternal great-grandmother, Hester Argo, had escaped from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) during the revolutionary upheaval in 1802, along with her three young children, including (Johnson’s grandfather Stephen Dillet (1797–1880). Although originally headed to Cuba, their boat was intercepted by privateers and they were brought to Nassau, Bahamas instead. There they permanently settled. In 1833 Stephen Dillet was the first man of color to win election to the Bahamian legislature. 

Johnson was trained at the New England Conservatory and then studied in London. His career began as a public school teacher in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Traveling to New York, he began his show business career along with his brother and composer Bob Cole. As a songwriting team, they wrote works such as The Evolution of Ragtime (1903). Among the earliest works by the group was a suite of six songs of “Negro” music. The men also produced two successful Broadway operettas with casts of black actors: Shoo-Fly Regiment of 1906 and The Red Moon of 1908.

Johnson also performed in these operettas. He played a Tuskegee soldier who enlists in the Spanish–American War in The Shoo Fly Regiment and portrayed African-American Plunk Green opposite Abbie Mitchell’s Minnehaha, a mixed Indian/black woman, in The Red Moon. These performances went beyond theatre. Rosamond, alongside his brother and Cole, evoked a political presence in their inclusion of other races in their musicals. In The Red Moon,Cole and Johnson broke racial lines as they included a love scene between Rosamond’s Green and Mitchell’s Minnehaha. This spotlight on Native Americans was so well received that Rosamond was inducted as a ‘sub-chief’ into the Iroquois tribe of Montreal’s Caughnawaga Reservation, which had a majority population of ethnic Mohawk people.

Cole and the Johnson brothers also created and produced several “white” musicals: Sleeping Beauty and the Beast in 1901, In Newport in 1904, and Humpty Dumpty in 1904. Johnson would also collaborate to create Hello Paris with J. Leubrie Hill in 1911.

Johnson was active in various musical roles during his career. He toured the vaudeville circuit and, after Cole’s 1911 death, began a successful tour with Charles Hartand Tom Brown. In London, he wrote music for a theater review from 1912 to 1913 serving a long residency. After returning to the United States, New York’s Music School Settlement for Colored — founded by the New York Symphony Orchestra’s David Mannes — appointed him as director where he served from 1914 to 1919.

J. Rosamond Johson served as the first Deputy Marshal for the historic Negro Silent Protest Parade in 1917.

Johnson also toured with his own ensembles, The Harlem Rounders and The Inimitable Five. He also performed in Negro spiritual concerts with Emmanuel Taylor Gordon, including at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan.

The London production of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1936 engaged Johnson as musical director. During the 1930s, Johnson also sang the role of Frazier in the original production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, taking roles in other dramas as well. He reprised his role as Frazier on the 1951 studio recording of Porgy and Bess.

As an editor, he collected four important works of traditional African-American songs. The first two of these song collections he compiled along with his brother James: The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925) and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926). In addition, Johnson edited Shoutsongs (1936) and the folksong anthology Rolling Along in Song (1937).J. Rosamond Johnson with his brother, James Weldon Johnson. Photographed by ASCAP

He died on November 11, 1954 in New York City. His widow, Nora E. Floyd Johnson, died in 1969

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