J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson were brothers from Jacksonville, Florida, who not only created new forms of black classical music but struggled mightily and not always with success to elevate these works to a proper level of respect. Historical references to the brothers' activities are often accompanied with unfortunate incidents of racism, such as a swank ASCAP dinner party in 1930 that J. Rosamond Johnson and other black composers from both the popular and serious camps were not allowed to attend because of their skin color.
The brothers worked both together and apart, J. Rosamond Johnson replacing his sibling in a touring act and songwriting partnership with Bob Cole once James Weldon Johnson's boozing got out of control. Cole's collaborations with the brothers date back prior to the onset of the 20th century and included an all-black theater company. Once J. Rosamond Johnson came into the picture, he and Cole achieved great success developing material in their own revues and then placing the best of these songs in various Broadway shows. Best known of these ditties was the lovely "Under the Bamboo Tree," first performed on Broadway in 1902 by May Irwin in a show titled Sally in Our Alley.
The Jim Crow system basically made it impossible, however, for even the most talented black performers to make a permanent move from vaudeville onto Broadway. Cole himself was out of this unpleasant picture by 1911: he committed suicide after being diagnosed with advanced case of the clap, and not the sort that comes with a standing ovation. Partner J. Rosamond continued composing and was also featured in the original productions of both Porgy and Bess and Cabin in the Sky.
Having studied at the New England Conservatory, the latter J. Rosamond eventually managed to rise well above the sleazy vaudeville lifestyle and in fact had to be the only director of London's Hammerstein Opera House whose curriculum vitae included a stint in minstrel shows. The catalog of original works involving the Johnson brothers shows a similar breadth, including not only extensive choral works but popular songs such as "Since You Went Away" and "I'll Always Love Old Dixie." Above all, they are responsible for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Black National Anthem." This inspiring work began as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and was later set to music by J. Rosamond Johnson.