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Francis Johnson Exhibit
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Francis ("Frank") Johnson (1792-1844) was a Philadelphia musician, bandleader, and composer. Little is known of his musical training, but by his mid-twenties he had become an accomplished violinist and cornetist and led a dance band that was a favorite among the elite of Philadelphia. His talents eventually were renowned far beyond his hometown through tours of England and the American Midwest during the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Johnson was also an African American, and although a free man, he lived in pre-Civil War America, a time when-even in free states-societal racism imposed limits on the activities of African Americans. His accomplishments were ambitious and remarkable given the overt and sometimes hostile racism he faced, particularly when touring outside Philadelphia in areas where he was not known.

His musicmaking centered on two traditions of Philadelphia high society: evening entertainment, including balls and dances, for which Johnson's string and brass bands provided cotillions, waltzes, and quadrilles suitable for dancing and socializing; and assemblies and processions of regional militia, for which Johnson's brass band played marches and quicksteps.

Johnson was born on 16 June 1792 in Philadelphia to unknown parents. By the time of his birth, a thriving community of free African Americans had been established in Philadelphia. Although he spent his summers performing in the resort hotels of Saratoga Springs and made occasional regional excursions with his bands, Philadelphia remained his home throughout his life. He died in Philadelphia on 6 April 1844 at the age of 52 after an extended illness. Following his death, Johnson's band continued performing under the direction of bandmember Joseph Anderson. The band eventually dissolved during the years of the Civil War.

 

Baptismal Record Frank Johnson's baptismal record in the register of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia. From Records of Baptisms of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church from 1782 through 1828, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Johnson is listed on the third line from the bottom, with 16 June 1792 as his date of birth and 23 September 1792 as his date of baptism.
Directory Listing McElroy's Philadelphia Directory for 1837.... Philadelphia, 1837.

The directory lists "Francis Johnson, musician," residing at 154 Pine Street (since renumbered 536 Pine Street). The city directory listed Johnson at this address as early as 1823, so it served as his home for most of his adult life. In 1992, on the occasional of the bicentennial of his birth, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a historical marker at the address, commemorating the site as the home of "America's first native-born master of music."
Portrait Portrait of Frank Johnson. Reproduced from a lithograph by Alfred M. Hoffy (b. ca. 1790), based on a daguerreotype by Robert Douglass Jr. (1809-1887). Printed by Thomas S. Wagner (d. 1863) and James McGuigan (b. ca. 1815) and published at the Arch Street Gallery of the Daguerreotype, Philadelphia, 1846. Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Very few verifiable portraits of Johnson exist. This lithograph of Johnson in his prime is the one most frequently reproduced. Robert Douglass Jr., a Johnson family friend, was a pioneering African-American artist who studied with Thomas Sully and in England. In 1841, he opened a studio at the corner of Arch and Front Streets for daguerreotyping and sign-painting.
Cotillion A Collection of New Cotillions [sic], 1st Sett. Philadelphia: G. Willig's Musical Magazine, 1818. Edward I. Keffer Collection of Sheet Music, University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

With the appearance of this first set of cotillions in 1818, Johnson became the first published African American composer. Over two hundred fifty of his compositions were published during succeeding decades, and copies for most of these have survived.

Reproduction of "Johnson's Jig Cotillion" from A Collection of New Cotillins [sic], 1st Sett. Directions for dancers are commonly found in the printed editions of Johnson's music intended to accompany dancing.

Kurt Stein Kurt Stein (1918-2002). Reproduced from a family photograph.

The Austrian-born collector assembled forty-two rare early editions of the music of Frank Johnson and a comprehensive collection of books and articles about him. The University of Pennsylvania Libraries acquired the collection in 2006, funded in part by the Alfred Reginald Allen Memorial Fund of the Savoy Company. Unless otherwise noted, the printed music on display is by Frank Johnson and was a part of the collection of Kurt Stein.
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