J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)
John Rosamond Johnson began playing the piano at the age of four before leaving his hometown in Jacksonville, Florida, to study music at the New England Conservatory and in London (Library of Congress, n.d.). He returned to Jacksonville and served as a public school teacher briefly before deciding to move north and become involved in the vaudeville circuit (“J. Rosamond Johnson,” n.d.). In 1900 he teamed up with his brother, James Weldon Johnson, and Robert Cole to turn his brother’s poem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” into what later would become known as the Negro National Anthem (“Johnson, J(ohn) Rosamond,” 1999). Though James Weldon Johnson would sometimes join them, it was Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson that would make a name for themselves as a popular songwriter and performer duo, distinguishing their act from others by performing in formal evening clothes and eschewing all caricature (African American Performers.., n.d.).
Johnson continued to command popularity touring with Charles Hart and Tom Brown after Bob Cole’s death in 1911. At the onset of WWI he put his performing career on hold and accepted a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 15th Regiment. The 15th New York National Guard Regiment, later renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, consisted mostly of African Americans and spent more days in the front line trenches than any other American unit, also suffering the most losses. The unit was nicknamed the Black Rattlers by the U.S., Men of Bronze by the French, and Hell-fighters by the Germans. (‘369th Infantry Regiment,’ n.d.).
Johnson returned from the war alive to create, and tour with, his own performance groups; he also returned to teaching, serving as a director of the Music School Settlement for Colored People (“Johnson, J(ohn) Rosamond,” 1999; Library of Congress, n.d.). In the 1920s, Johnson began to split his attentions between performing and writing about the music he studied. In his first book, The Book of Negro Spirituals, and its companion volume, The Second Book of Negro Spirituals, Johnson presented a collection of various spirituals and song versions collected during his musical study. In an introduction to a third book on the same topic, Rolling Along in Song: A Chronological Survey of American Negro Music, Johnson would dedicate the songs to “the musical youth of America--especially to those who are interested in the development of musical composition with a distinctive American treatment based on the idioms and characteristics of the American Negro" (“Johnson, J(ohn) Rosamond,” 1999).
J. Rosamond Johnson in the news:
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: