Reference Entry

Johnson, J. Rosamond

Carolyn Wedin

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Johnson, J. Rosamond

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composer, pianist, actor, singer. Given the name planned for a daughter, with “John” added to indicate gender, John Rosamond Johnson was the second son born to James and Helen Louise Dillet Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida. With his older and more widely known brother, James Weldon, Johnson learned his first music harmonizing with the hymns, spirituals, and art songs that his Bahamian mother, who was also a teacher, picked out on the piano. He rapidly became adept at the keyboard, causing his big brother to take up the guitar and then violin in attempted competition. In 1890, at age seventeen, Johnson headed to Boston, where he remained for six years, studying piano, organ, composition, and voice at the New England Conservatory, with breaks to work to pay his way. After a year touring and making his acting debut with John Isham's Oriental America (1896), Johnson returned to Jacksonville, where he worked until 1899 as supervisor of music for the Jacksonville Public Schools, gave piano lessons, and collaborated with his brother on an unproduced comic opera on American imperialism.It was from their respective teaching positions in Jacksonville that the brothers created the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for five hundred children to sing at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday anniversary in 1900. The inspiring words by James Weldon and the dramatic, expressive, spirit-arousing melody by J. Rosamond spread from those students when they became teachers to make this song gain the description “Black National Anthem,” by which it is widely known today.The Johnson brothers headed to New York City in the summer of 1899 with their creations, and at the Hotel Marshall and elsewhere they met a wide variety of black and white musicians and theater people, including the vaudevillian Bob Cole, with whom J. Rosamond formed a partnership, Cole and Johnson. Within two years, when James Weldon joined them, they became Cole and the Johnson Brothers. With a combination of creation and performance, the trio was soon well known in the music world, with over two hundred songs, including “Under the Bamboo Tree,” “Congo Love Song,” and “My Castle on the Nile,” and hit shows such as Shoo-Fly Regiment (1906), with which they toured Europe. After they wrote campaign songs for President Teddy Roosevelt, James Weldon Johnson received consular appointments, and the trio went back to a duet.J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole fell back on vaudeville when times were hard, and a description of their act shows the combination of classical training and folksy inventiveness. They came on stage in full evening dress, discussing their program, and would decide on perhaps Ignacy Jan Paderewski's “Minuet,” and then a classic song in German, “Still wie de Nacht.” Only after establishing their classical bona fides would they launch into Negro folk songs, spirituals, and original songs, invariably wowing their audiences. James Weldon Johnson described the kind of combination they were looking for as a maintenance of what was distinctive in Negro music, but sophisticated enough to appeal to the cultured musician.Bob Cole drowned in 1910, a probable suicide, and J. Rosamond Johnson subsequently toured the vaudeville circuit with Charles Hart and became director of Oscar Hammerstein's Grand Opera House in London. He brought his former Jacksonville piano student, Nora Ethel Floyd, to London, where they were married in 1913, and their daughter, Mildred Louise Johnson, was born there in 1914. Upon return to the United States later that year, he and his brother were two of six blacks included in the 170 charter members of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).In the late 1910s and early 1920s Johnson founded the New York Music School Settlement for Colored People; toured with the Rosamond Johnson Quintet; served as a second lieutenant in the Fifteenth Infantry of the U.S. National Guard; wrote the musical arrangements for the highly successful Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925) and Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926), which he published with his brother; and toured with Taylor Gordon. (His dedications of his compositions in American Negro Spirituals provide insight into his relationship with his contemporaries: pieces are dedicated to Joel E. Spingarn, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Carl Van Vechten, Mary White Ovington, George Gershwin, and many more to family, friends, and Harlem Renaissance figures.) His movie career began with a performance by the John Rosamond Johnson Singers in the 1929 film Jazz, following his composition of a ballet, African Drum Dance, in 1928.In subsequent decades, Johnson performed in Joe Laurie Jr.'s Memory Lane review (1933) and in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1936 (1936–1937), including a Great Britain tour. He played Lawyer Frazier in Porgy and Bess (1935), the Reverend Quintus Whaley in Mamba's Daughters (1939–1941), Brother Green in Cabin in the Sky (a 1940 production in which he also directed the J. Rosamond Johnson Singers), and Professor Arnold Harmon in A Young American (1946).John Rosamond Johnson died at his home in New York City and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. With a life of incredible creativity and versatility, his impact on American music and musical theater, while not widely recognized, is inestimable.

Reference Entry.  1085 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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