Francis Johnson

There is a question about the birthplace of Francis Johnson (1792-1844), a performer of the bugle and violin.  Some sources cite Martinique, while some say Philadelphia. Regardless, by his early 20s he was building a reputation as a bandleader in Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania. 

During the course of his career, Johnson composed over 200 musical arrangements in various styles including cotillions, operatic airs, ballads, quadrilles, patriotic marches, quicksteps, and other forms of ballroom music. These pieces were published, making him the first African American to publish sheet music as well as the first African American bandleader to conduct public concerts as well as integrated musical events, when he started to incorporate white musicians into his previously all-black band. In 1837 he led the first American ensemble to perform before Queen Victoria in England.  She was so taken with Johnson’s musical talent that she gave him a silver bugle as a present. In Europe, Johnson and his band picked up the latest musical trends and brought them back to the United States. It was Johnson that introduced waltzes by Johann Strauss and a style of music which developed into what is now known as the very popular classical “pops” style. Despite all this success, life as an African American was not easy in the first half of the 1800s and Johnson and his band often faced racism at their performances. On several occasions, the audience did not believe that Johnson and his fellow black musicians could read the sheet music in front of them, insisting that they were playing the music “by ear.” In St. Louis, Missouri, the city government put out an affidavit for his arrest and eventually kicked him out of town. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was chased by an angry, violent crowd, escaping with only minor injuries. 

There are no direct accounts of how Johnson reacted to the virulent racism he faced during his lifetime. What remains as evidence of Johnson’s commitment to equality are his compositions like “The Grave of the Slave” and the “Recognition March on the Independence of Haiti” as well as his continued commitment to play for the black community even after he became hugely popular in the more lucrative white community. Francis Johnson died in 1844 in Philadelphia after a lengthy illness at the age of 52.

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