Black History Month: Francis B. Johnson

Born in 1792, black trumpeter Francis (Frank) Johnson led an amazing career centered in Philadelphia. With more than 300 compositions to his credit, most of them published, he was the most popular black composer before the Civil War. His band was in great demand for cotillion balls and marches. In fact, just about everything he did was very successful. When he wasn’t playing the keyed bugle, the band leader was playing the violin.

Johnson’s band frequently had to deal with racial issues, such as, when on tour in Missouri, a new state that supported slavery, they were all arrested and fined. A particularly violent incident occurred near Pittsburgh:

At the close of the concert the mob followed Mr. Johnson and his company shouting “n____” and other opprobrious epithets, and hurling brick-bats, stones and rotten eggs in great profusion upon the unfortunate performers. One poor fellow was severely, it is feared dangerously, wounded in the head, and others were more or less hurt. No thanks to the mobocrats that life was not taken, for they hurled their missiles with murderous recklessness if not with murderous intention.

——The Tribune [NY], May 23, 1843.

Here’s Ralph Dudgeon talking about Frank Johnson’s instrument, the keyed bugle, and toward the end of this short video, he demonstrates a piece written by Johnson.

Johnson wrote  “Honor To The Brave: Gen. Lafayette’s Grand March,” which became a popular tribute to the French military leader who helped the United States win its freedom from Great Britain. He performed this march and other music to support an American tour for General Lafayette in 1824.

In 1837, Johnson and some members of his band became the first African American musicians to travel to Europe to perform.  Returning in 1838, the band soared in popularity, performing much in-demand outdoor “Promenade Concerts” throughout the Northeast.

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