Sunday, November 23, 2014 'A music man of the mid-19th century,' African American Bugler, Bandmaster and Composer Francis B. Johnson (1792-1844)

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In Antebellum America, Francis "Frank" Johnson (1792-1844) called the tune. One of the most popular American musicians in the mid-19th century, Johnson was a prolific composer and vivid performer.

Little is known about his early life. Recent scholarship suggests that Johnson was born in Martinique, West Indies, though some claim him as a native Philadelphian. His early musical training is equally unclear. Though he would become a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, Johnson appears to have begun with the violin and keyed bugle, playing dances, parades, and other social occasions in the city.

What is certain is Johnson's talent. During the 1810s, Johnson made a name for himself as a composer and bandmaster. By 1818, Johnson became the first African American to have his compositions published as sheet music with his Collection of New Cotillions.

His popularity continued to soar throughout the 1820s and 1830s, when Johnson and his band could be heard in the homes, dance halls, and streets across Philadelphia. The exclusively free black audiences of his early career soon broadened to include the city's aristocracy. Johnson is credited with participating in some of the first racially integrated concerts in the country.

Johnson was not able to completely avoid the racism of his time. Several all-white bands refused to share a billing with him, and crowds in St. Louis and Pittsburgh chased him out of town.


In 1837, Johnson became the first African American bandleader to take a band to Europe, and Queen Victoria was in the audience when he performed at Buckingham Palace. Victoria was so impressed that she gave Johnson a silver bugle, and he repaid her kindness by being buried with the instrument.

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