When maintaining the world’s largest collection of braille music scores, there is a good chance one will come across wonderful musical treasures from time to time. This was the case for me recently as I stumbled upon the music of Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844). The career and musical legacy of Johnson represents an incredible milestone in the history of American music. At a time when earning a full-time living as a musician was rare in the United States, Francis Johnson created a professional life of such variety and importance that his body of work would have been considered successful in any era. Even more remarkable is that Johnson, an African-American, achieved success against a litany of racial strife that worsened even as his work progressed. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us appreciate the life and work of Francis Johnson.
Jasmine Smith, an African American History Specialist and Reference Librarian with the Library Company of Philadelphia, recently brought the work of Francis Johnson to light. Many of Johnson’s works are housed at the Library Company’s collection. At a 2019 performance sponsored by Smith’s library, fiddler Brian Farrow performed a number of Johnson’s works, remarking to the audience, “…he [Johnson] is a monumental part of our musical legacy and he deserves to be in every textbook and every classroom in America. But he is totally missing. I want people to understand how his story is imperative to the nation’s musical history and gives more weight to an early African American musical legacy adjacent to minstrelsy.”
Francis Johnson was the preeminent band leader in Philadelphia and one of the most popular Black composers prior to the American Civil War. Among his 300 original compositions, he wrote patriotic marches, European ballads, cotillions, quicksteps, and Ethiopian minstrel songs, many of which he performed for General Lafayette during his visit to Philadelphia in 1824 and Queen Victoria during a European tour in 1837.
Francis Johnson was born in Philadelphia on June 16, 1792. His early music teachers are unknown, but he became a highly-skilled trumpeter, violinist, conductor, and composer. It is believed that Johnson may have learned how to play the keyed bugle from an Irish immigrant named Richard Willis, who went on to become the leader of the band at the West Point Military Academy. As an African American, Johnson faced racial discrimination, despite the fact that he was born free in a relatively progressive northern city. Even through that adversity, he was able to make a very comfortable living as a professional musician and gain international fame at a time when such a livelihood was unheard of for any American musician, regardless of race. Most of his music was published during his lifetime, and his musical style fits within the European classical tradition that was popular in Philadelphia during that period.
According to James Wintle, a Music Specialist at the Library of Congress, Johnson’s first known composition is “Bingham’s Cotillion,” written between 1810 and 1815, making it the first music publication composed by an African American and possibly the first cotillion dance published in the United States. “Bingham” refers to the Bingham Mansion in Philadelphia, which was once owned by statesman William Bingham. The venue was later converted into the Exchange Coffeehouse, where Francis Johnson performed as a violinist during his adolescent years. There he developed his musical skills as well as his ability to entertain an audience and keep up with popular tastes. It was at the Exchange Coffeehouse that music publisher George Willig discovered Johnson and asked him to compose music for publication.
Johnson took part in military activities around 1815, and in 1821, he led the official band of the Philadelphia State Fencibles, which was a band contracted by the units of the militia, in their military excursions and dance functions. He was sought after by the leading dance masters of his day, including Victor Guillou and A. Bonnafon, both of whom had French connections. Johnson usually supplied music for the annual birthday celebrations of George Washington and also composed much of the music for an event in honor of the visiting Charles Dickens. He participated in events involving President Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay at Saratoga Springs. Four of Johnson’s African American contemporaries in Philadelphia who also wrote band music were James Hemmenway, Isaac Hazzard, A.J.R. Conner and Edward Roland.
Johnson’s band gained some national recognition when it became associated with all-white militia units and began to play concerts at the Summer Resort at Saratoga Springs, the same resort where the Philadelphia Orchestra has spent its summers for many years. His group toured across much of the United States including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Louisville, and Cleveland, as well as parts of Canada. In 1838, Johnson’s band became the first African American musicians to travel to Europe when they were asked to perform for the newly crowned Queen Victoria. After playing for the Queen, she presented him with a silver bugle.
While in England, Johnson was exposed to the European “promenade” concert style. Upon his return to the U.S.in 1838, he introduced this new style of concert in Philadelphia during the Christmas season. He programmed waltzes by Johann Strauss and introduced a format of music that developed into what is now known as the very popular classical “pops” style. Johnson also incorporated white musicians into his band, leading to some of the first interracial musical performances in the United States.
Johnson died in 1844 after a sustained illness. His sickness spurred a final burst of compositional productivity, perhaps to generate income for his family and to commit as many of his ideas to paper as possible. His funeral was attended by hundreds of members of the African-American community, and his own composition, “Dirge”, was played by his band at his grave. Members of Johnson’s band continued to perform under his name for 20 years after his death, and his publications resulted in other Black musicians finding music publishers. Francis Johnson, sometimes referred to as the forefather of jazz and ragtime, was a tireless musician and a trailblazing band leader.
If you enjoyed learning about Francis Johnson, then please peruse these works in the NLS collection that relate to this post. To borrow music-related talking books on cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please call the Music Section at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]
Early American Music, Level 4. Includes Johnson’s composition, “Ladies Choice.” Bar over bar format. (BRM28582)
From Jumpstreet: A Story of Black Music. Part 1 compares the roles of music, dance, and song in traditional West African and Afro-American culture. In Part 2 the development of gospel and spiritual music compared with its original functions and settings. Part 3 identifies social, political, and economic factors that nurtured the development of soul music. Part 4 considers the music that developed after the Civil War to express the sorrows and joys of freed people. Part 5 focuses on black urban folk music. “R and B,” or “doo wop,” is the forerunner of rock and roll, soul, and disco. Part 6 explains that blues, brass band music, African ritual music, and ragtime are among early sources of the jazz music culture. Part 7 highlights the golden era of jazz vocalists during the 1930s and 1940s. Part 8 demonstrates that jazz is uniquely American music and identifies innovators from 1936 on. Part 9 traces black music from minstrelsy, Special Topics-American Music through “talking” pictures, to stage and screen. Part 10 depicts the process of creating and marketing a record from the perspective of black performers. Oscar Browne, Jr., traces the history of recording since the appearance of the first Victrola in 1877. (DBM00715)
Sanders, Nancy I. America’s Black Founders: Revolutionary Heroes and Early Leaders. Discusses the contributions of African Americans who were doctors, ministers, poets, sailors, and soldiers during the founding of our nation. Corresponding activities include preparing pepper pot soup and firecakes; writing a newspaper and a petition to the government; and adding a verse to “Yankee Doodle.” For grades 4-7. 2010. (DB 71643)
West, Ben. Diversity and the Birth of Broadway: Early Black Authors of the American Musical. The second of a two-part lecture sequence by Ben West, creator of the new documentary musical series The Show Time! Trilogy, offers an exciting account of the American musical’s early African American authors. In the first three decades of the 20th century, against a backdrop of segregation, social discord, and rampant racism, emerged such seminal figures as Duke Ellington, Bert Williams, and Bob Cole. Rich in character and rooted in ragtime and jazz, the groundbreaking work of these African American innovators laid the foundation for both the American popular song and the American musical stage. (DBM04247)
Anthology of early American Keyboard Music 1787-1830, Vol. 2. Contains two of Johnson’s works, “Honor to the Brave: Genl. Lafayette’s Grand March,” and “Johnson’s New Cotillions.” (LPM00733)
To read more about African American musicians, please enjoy these selected posts by our colleagues in the Music Division in their “In the Muse” blog. You can also find content about Black musicians in previous posts from the NLS Music Notes blog.