Francis Johnson was an early 19th-century Philadelphia musician, composer, bandmaster and freeman who helped define the American musical sound. As a forefather of jazz, ragtime, military music and the classical ‘pops’ style, Francis Johnson was a pivotal figure at the crux of the nation’s sound, yet his story of innovation, influence and struggle has rarely been told. On Friday, Sept. 13, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., noted musician and historian Brian Farrow will share Johnson’s legacy and play from his repertoire at the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St.
“He is a monumental part of our musical legacy and he deserves to be in every textbook and every classroom in America,” says multi-instrumentalist and scholar Farrow. “But he is totally missing. I want people to understand how his story is imperative to the nation’s musical history and gives more weight to an early African American musical legacy adjacent to minstrelsy.”
Johnson is the first African-American composer noted to have his music published and many of his compositions are housed at the Library Company of Philadelphia. One sheet music of Johnson’s is on display in the exhibition, “From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures: Black Creative Re-Imaginings,” which celebrates the resiliency, faith, dignity, creativity and activism of African Americans and closes Oct. 18, 2019.
His was one of the most popular bands of the era, performing at society balls, schools and private parties for the Who’s Who of Philadelphia, at African American churches, for military regiments and he is the first Black man to tour extensively past the Appalachian Mountains into the former Louisiana territory. He was the first American band leader to tour Europe, led the first American ensemble to perform before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and was one of the first Black musicians to perform in integrated musical events in the United States. With these accolades and more, Johnson was still viewed as an ‘other’ in the eyes of many 19th-century Americans, which caused him trouble along racial lines. Thankfully, wherever he went with his music, he was able to resist the racial prejudice he faced. His legacy lives on.
“As America’s oldest cultural institution, it’s fitting that The Library Company of Philadelphia use music to peel back the layers of history and pay tribute to someone who deserves to be at the forefront, but who has been all but forgotten,” says Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens, Program Director of African American History for the Library Company. “Francis Johnson helped establish a musical sound that is distinctly American, giving our country a way to celebrate, to commemorate, to express our deepest feelings, and to bring people together with a common voice.”