[Portrait of Francis (Frank) Johnson (1792-1844). Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.]
University of Pennsylvania Almanac
February 14, 2012, Volume 58, No. 22
by Richard Griscom
Head, Otto E. Albrecht Music Library and Eugene Ormandy Music and Media Center
“The Penn Libraries are home to several distinguished research collections related to the musical arts in Philadelphia. Researchers from across the globe come to Penn to work with the papers of renowned Philadelphia musicians like Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski and Marian Anderson. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library also has materials associated with a number of lesser-known Philadelphia musicians who were central to the cultural life of the city. In 2006, the library acquired a collection of printed music by an important musician of early Philadelphia, Francis (Frank) Johnson (1792–1844)—a performer, bandleader, teacher and composer. From his mid-twenties until his death at the age of fifty-two, Johnson was Philadelphia’s favorite dance-band leader, and his talents became known beyond his hometown through tours of the Midwest, summer residencies in Saratoga Springs and a trip to England during the last decade of his life.
“Johnson was also an African American. He was born a free man and lived a free man, but this was America before the Civil War, a time when societal racism limited the activities of all African Americans. For most of his adult life, he lived in a house at 536 Pine Street (no longer standing), a part of a thriving community of free African Americans in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a marker on the site in 1992, commemorating the bicentennial of his birth.
“We know little about Johnson’s musical training, but by his mid-twenties he had become an accomplished violinist and cornetist. Through his virtuosity and his affable, courtly manner, he won the respect and admiration of the elite of Philadelphia society. Eventually, his musicmaking centered on two traditions of Philadelphia high society. The first was evening entertainment, for which his string and brass bands provided cotillions, waltzes and quadrilles suitable for dancing and socializing at balls as well as private parties. (He also spent his summers in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he provided music for similar functions at resort hotels.) The second tradition was regional militia gatherings, and for these, Johnson led a brass band that played marches and quicksteps for assemblies and processions. These militia groups were formed as a means of defense, but since they were rarely engaged in combat, the assemblies became opportunities for men of high society to gather and socialize, and Johnson’s brass band would be hired to add an air of distinction to the events.” [Professor Dominique-René de Lerma, http://www.CasaMusicaledeLerma.com, has made his research on Francis B. Johnson available to AfriClassical.com along with the complete Works List for him.]