Francis Johnson Exhibit


Performances for Philadelphia's Elite

As an African American musician working within the traditions of white society, Johnson adopted a musical style that suited the tastes of his audience. His dance music was light, simple, and tuneful. It is thought that some of his earliest performances were as a fiddler in Philadelphia coffee houses, but it was not until 1818, when he was 26 years old and had formed a band, that Johnson was first mentioned in the Philadelphia press. His musicianship and affable, courtly manner won him respect and admiration among the elite of Philadelphia society, and he quickly became the mostly popular bandleader in the city.

In Robert Waln's satire of Philadelphia society, The Hermit in America on a Visit to Philadelphia (1819), one Peter Atall, a fictional Philadelphian, describes Johnson's performances at the Masonic Hall to the narrator, "the Hermit of Guiana":

"'You observe the leader of the band. He is a descendant of Africa, and possesses a most respectable share of musical talents. - Among other follies of our young ladies, it is quite a fashionable one, to be 'enchanted' with this fiddler. He is indeed a prominent character in the gay world, and happy the lady, in whose ear at the midnight hour he pours the dulcet notes of love!... This fiddler is the presiding deity on such occasions, and although a tawny one, is not the less fervently invoked on that account. In fine, he is leader of the band at all balls, public and private; sole director of all serenades, acceptable and not acceptable; inventor-general of cotillions; to which add, a remarkable taste in distorting a sentimental, simple, and beautiful song, into a reel, jig, or country-dance; - and you have a pretty correct idea of the favoured little J-ns-n" (From "The Cotillion Party.'" In The Hermit in America on a Visit to Philadelphia. 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, 1819).

Johnson's social musical engagements were not limited to balls and dances, however. His band accompanied musical productions in Philadelphia theaters and provided music for ceremonial events.

Baptismal Record "Johnson's March in The Catarct [sic] of the Ganges: As Performed by His Band at the Circus." Philadelphia: G. Willig, [1824 or 1825].

This march was excerpted from the incidental music Johnson composed for Joseph Cowell's 1824 production at the Walnut Street Theatre of W. T. Moncrieff's play, The Cataract of the Ganges; or, The Rajah's Daughter.
Directory Listing Walnut Street Theater, ca. 1865. Reproduced from Robert F. Looney, Old Philadelphia in Early Photographs, 1839-1914 (New York, 1976).

The Walnut Street Theater, the oldest theater still in use in America, opened in 1809 as the New Circus, featuring animal and other circus acts. By 1820, it had become a playhouse and was the site for the 1824 production of The Cataract of the Ganges.
Portrait From "Annual Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania." Daily Chronicle, Philadelphia, 28 March 1842.

Johnson's band performed for several events at the University of Pennsylvania. This newspaper account of the 26 March 1842 commencement of Penn School of Medicine, held in the Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street, lists the pieces performed by Johnson's "brass and stringed" bands, which "enlivened the meeting at intervals."
Cotillion Minutes of the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees, 5 April 1842. University of Pennsylvania Archives.

Johnson was paid twenty dollars for "Music for Exhibition," presumably the performance at the Medical Commencement that had occurred on 26 March 1842. According to the index to the Board of Trustee meeting minutes, Johnson was paid eight times between January 1832 and April 1842 for performances at university events. Johnson's band was also engaged by other area universities for commencement ceremonies - for example, the 30 September 1840 commencement ball at Princeton, for which he composed "The Princeton Grand March."
Kurt Stein Francis Johnson, arranger. "Favorite Waltz, or Spanish Dance"; "Favorite Hop Waltz." Edward I. Keffer Collection of Music Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

These pieces, bearing the dedication "For Mrs. J. Reed," are piano arrangements that were probably prepared by Johnson for performance by Mrs. Reed in her home.
Kurt Stein Portrait of Phoebe Ann Ridgway Rush (1797-1857). Reproduction of an engraving from John Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (Philadelphia, 1884).

Phoebe Ann Rush, wife of physician James Benjamin Rush, was well educated and a brilliant conversationalist. Her house in Philadelphia was one of the finest in the country, and her entertainments were large and luxurious.

The 15 February 1828 entry in the diary of Philadelphia socialite Samuel Breck includes an account of a ball at the Rush mansion:
"We attended a ball at Mrs. R. [sic] Rush's in the Doctor's new and well contrived house in Chestnut Street. No house in town is furnished so prettily. The pictures and mirrors are framed with rich gilding, relieved by deep crimson velvet, and the statuary in the niches on the stairway and over the doors are principally of Italian marble and workmanship.... Johnson, with five of his Band, was there. A propos of Johnson: This Black musician is a man of taste, and even science in his vocation. He has organized a large band, and gives lessons upon various instruments; and what is still more useful and certainly more singular is the talent he has of turning every lively tune in the new operas to his purpose by adapting to it a Quadrille or Cotillion of his own composing which he introduces at the parties in Philada. and then gets engraved and circulated thro' the union; thus becoming the author of all novelty in dancing."
Listen Case 8 Case 7 Case 6 Case 5 Case 4 Case 3 Case 2 Home