Black Music Month, Day #6 (excerpt of a speech to inaugurate the Frank Johnson Collection at the University of Pennsylvania)
This history of American music is more than an epic story of great composers and their works—a social constructed narrative that characterizes how Western Art Music has been taught during much of its historiography. American musical history comprises the rough-and-tumble business of building an infrastructure for soul stirring, ear-pleasing, and profitable music making where none existed.
Well, I should mention that America did have a robust indigenous musical culture—that of Native Americans, whose musical activities connected them to their past, their communities, and belief systems. But that is another topic for another time.
I’d like to draw your attention to the life and works of Francis Johnson by situating this extraordinary historical actor in several contexts. Indeed, this sheet music collection affords us a moment to consider the many ways in which Johnson’s life was exceptional. But it also provides us a way to think about the ways in which his life resonates with those of other similarly situated Black Subjects in the West.
His accomplishments are stunning. Francis Johnson was a composer, virtuoso musician on the violin and keyed bugle, a bandleader, music instructor, entrepreneur, community organizer, a master music promoter who rivaled PT Barnum, and the first African American to have his musical works published, and thereby made available to an American public eager to play music in their parlors before the years of the phonograph. In addition, he was among the first American musicians to take a band to Europe, an early act that reversed the flow of culture from the New World back to the New World at a historical moment when America was still very much a cultural colony of Europe, long after the political and religious revolution that inspired the formation of our country.
How could this be? How did a black musician achieve so much in a historical context in which his fellow black citizens were considered less than human. Johnson was born in 1792, in Philadelphia twelve years after a law was passed in February of 1780 to abolish slavery in Pennsylvania. Called “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” it read:
“Be it enacted and it is hereby enacted by the Representatives of the Freemen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met and by the Authority of the same, That all Persons, as well Negroes, and Mulattos, as others, who shall be born within this State, from and after the Passing of this Act, shall not be deemed and considered as Servants for Life or Slaves; and that all Servitude for Life or Slavery of Children in Consequence of the Slavery of their Mothers, in the Case of all Children born within this State from and after the passing of this Act as aforesaid, shall be, an hereby is, utterly taken away, extinguished and for ever abolished.”
In this conflicted, racialized social environment, Francis Johnson received music instruction, according to one source, from a French music teacher who thoroughly grounded him in music theory, composition, and performance. He formed his group somewhere between the years 1819 and 1821 and began to play for many occasions among Philadelphia’s white elites. He was obviously a disciplined student and associated himself with like-minded black musicians (all male), who also performed and composed on a high level. In this way, he worked very much like King Oliver and Duke Ellington did in the early twentieth century: both leaders handpicked their bands because of the unique qualities they could lend to the whole. Another connection that one might draw here is that, like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Johnson’s band continued after death. Sensing his demise, two weeks prior, Johnson passed his baton to his colleague Joseph G. Anderson, who succeeded him as bandleader. The group continued to tour despite replica organizations creating stiff competition that tried to duplicate Johnson’s success.
The military band that Johnson maintained for more than twenty years was the most popular form of musical entertainment during its time. It responded “to various social needs, from military parades to popular entertainment.” Such groups would have to share their roles as stars in the nascent, but emerging music industry, however, when traveling European opera tropes began to tour on these shores as “exotic” others from far away. American’s loved opera and musical theater, and these forms of popular entertainments remained “hot” until the appearance of jazz in the next century, and gradual development of an music art culture in the United States, that separated musical culture into three spheres: art, mass, folk.
The keyed bugle, the wind band’s first virtuoso instrument, allowed performers to play with boldness and delicacy. Leading players of the time, including Francis Johnson became well known figures in concert life. Virtuosos tended to play music that would show off their “high range, fast passagework, wide leaps, and sustained notes.” Think about the emergence of the electric guitar and how it changed musical performance. Like jazz musicians do with improvising solos, these performers could highlight their virtuosity with their own riveting variations of well-known melodies. Perhaps a better analogy would be to think also about Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival, a performance that is certainly seared into the history of rock music as a central text.
During these performances, Johnson established himself as America’s first rock star: he was a musician whose virtuosity stunned audiences. He traveled with a posse of equally talented and capable musicians, who were once described as a “Rough set of Negroes,” by one of the Hutchinson singers, a family of white Abolitionists/performers who were certainly sympathetic to black social conditions in the early 19th century. There has been some speculation that this terminology did not, in fact, describe their manner, but could have indexed some of the musical traits from black culture that the musicians may have blushed across the soundscape of their performances. In other words, the band may have played music that sounds a littler funkier than what our 21st century ears could have imagined.