Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During a visit to Philadelphia in 1818, Englishman Robert Wahn discovered and wrote in his travel diary about a remarkably talented black musician. And by putting pen to paper, he unwittingly recorded for posterity the existence of an early nineteenth­-century musician, composer, and conductor.

“The Leader of the band,” wrote Wahn, “is a descendant of Africa [who] possesses a most respectable share of musical talents. In fact, he is the leader of the band at all balls, public and private; sole director of all serenades, accept­able and unacceptable; inventor-general of cotillions, to which add, a remarkable taste in distorting a sentimental, simple, and beautiful song, into a reel, jig, or country dance.”

The leader of the band was Frank Johnson (1792-1844) who, unlike other black musicians in antebellum Philadelphia, claimed prestige and popularity with aU levels of society. Wahn noted that Johnson was a versatile composer; he could write music for different styles of dance. He knew how to compose European ballads, military marches, and black American vernacular dance music. Like many contemporary jazz musicians, he knew how to improvise, a musical talent rare in his day. Johnson was fortunate in having his music published because the availability of his music bolstered his popularity. He succeeded where many musicians failed – his music reached a universal audience.

Born on the West Indies island of Martinique, Johnson immigrated to Philadelphia in the opening decade of the nineteenth century; passenger ship lists record a Francis Johnson arriving in 1809. Although his given name was Francis, Philadelphians called him Frank.

Black musicians were not uncommon in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Four African Americans, the Appo brothers and the Newton brothers, played in the Walnut Street Theatre’s orchestra. It’s likely that Johnson learned music from these musicians because they often gave private music lessons to augment their income.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Johnson, like many blacks, signed up for military service. He became a marching bandleader with the Third Company of Washing­ton Guards. Although racial prejudice discouraged them from assuming combat roles in the militia, blacks learned that the role of militia musician was significant. The importance of military parades aided a musician’s chances for promotion. Many wealthy men enrolled in the private militia, and the groups competed with each to prove their superior social status. One conspicuous sign of this rivalry – and superiority – was clothing, and Johnson outfitted his fifteen-member band with elaborate uniforms.

Frank Johnson scored a big hit with the city’s elite. His music was intriguing because of his ability to improve on common music themes, most notably a melody entitled Third Company of Washington Guards Kent Bugle Quick March. The Kent Bugle was a keyed brass horn created by the Irishmen Joseph Halliday and John Bernard Logier. Logier published a method book for his horn, marketing it to American militia groups. It’s likely that Johnson learned how to play the E-flat keyed bugle from Logier’s manual. Brass instruments were desirable because they increased the volume of a band, announced a troop’s presence from a distance, and increased the band’s popularity in militia parades.

One of Johnson’s first compositions, written during the War of 1812, was General Cadwalader’s Grand March, named for Revolutionary War hero and Philadelphia society figure John Cadwalader. Johnson followed this with Captain J. C. Watmough’s Kent Bugle Slow March. Through their patriotic music, Johnson and fellow composers – including Francis Scott Key – influenced Americans’ perception of public history. Their lyrics emphasized the nation’s military victories while ignoring or minimizing defeats and disap­pointments.

In 1815, Johnson made the acquaintance of Philadelphia music publisher George Willig, who published his Slow March. With this piece, Johnson became the first black musician to be published. Many of his admirers bought sheet music, and Johnson’s popularity grew. Eileen South­ern, music historian and author of The Music of Black Americans: A History, contends “it was Johnson’s ability to jazz the music [or improvise] that contributed to his great popularity although [in 1815] the word ‘jazz’ had not yet been invented.”

Following the War of 1812, Johnson organized a black military band consisting of clarinets, flutes, bells, bugles, bass drums, and one or two bassoons. Upon the disbanding of the Third Washington Guards, Johnson’s group played for other militia companies and began perform­ing for civilian affairs. Johnson was as aggressive in his self-promotion as he was eclectic in his repertoire. In October 1818, he announced in a Philadelphia newspaper, Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, that his “select band could be procured for Assemblies, Public and Private Balls at the shortest notice, by applying at his residence, 119 South Sixth Street near Spruce Street.” Philadelphians – among them members of the city’s aristocra­cy – responded enthusiastically.

His connections with Philadelphia’s social set elevated Johnson to an enviable position, which enabled him to perform for official visitors to the city. When dignitaries arrived, they were customarily greeted with a ceremony consisting of a military salute and music, followed by a parade and ball. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Philadelphia in 1824 during his tri­umphal tour of America, it was Johnson who performed at the grand ball given in his honor at Philadelphia’s New Theater. For this special occasion, Johnson composed several selections in his honor, including General Lafayette’s Bugle Waltz, a cotillion number entitled General Lafayette’s Favorite, and Honor To The Brave, General Lafayette’s Grand March. He also wrote some interesting piano music, Lafayette Cotillions, consisting of five musical pieces, each of which was named for a particular Revolutionary War battle.

In 1820, the undisputed grand dame of Philadelphia’s upper crust was Phoebe Ann Ridway Rush, wife of physician James Rush and daughter of millionaire merchant Jacob Ridway. “Her appear­ance was singular,” Philadelphian Sidney George Fisher wrote in his diary. “Her figure was very tall, very stout and unwieldy, wholly devoid of beauty or grace. Her features were masculine, well cut and expressive of mind & character, but not of softness. She had bright, clear, dark eyes, rich abundant dark hair, teeth perfect­ly white & regular, was always so highly rouged that at a distance she seemed to have a most florid complexion. She dressed in the most expensive manner and in the brightest & most conspicuous colors.”

Although her appearance and bearing made Rush seem, at least to some people, superior and condescending, she was, in fact, egalitarian and liberal. She loathed class distinctions and brought together guests from various walks of life at her parties. This made her the ideal patron for Frank Johnson.

Johnson performed at a party given by Phoebe Rush in February 1828 and deeply impressed Samuel Breck, a state legislator. “This Black musician is a man of taste, and even science in his vocation,” Breck wrote. “He has organized a large Band, and gives lessons upon various instruments, and what is still more useful and certainly more singular, is the talent he has of turning every lively tune in the new operas to his purpose, by adapting it to a Quadrille or Cotillion of his own composing which he introduces at parties in Philadelphia.” In gratitude for her patronage – and for exposing him to the “right” kind of people – Johnson presented Rush with a collection of eighty original compositions.

Phoebe Rush not only engaged Johnson for her parties but helped his career in other ways. It was she who persuaded Gideon Putnam of Saratoga, who owned a resort nestled in the southern foothills of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, to hire Johnson for his hotel in 1820. This marked the first time an American resort had employed a house band. For more than two decades, Johnson’s band was a fixture at Saratoga, where guests whiled away the summer season “taking the waters” amidst palatial hotels and in the company of fellow wealthy sojourners. Johnson’s stint was seasonal, and during the rest of the year he played with a Pennsylvania militia organization, the Old Guard State Fencibles, formed in Philadelphia in 1813.

Performing with the State Fencibles was not as pleasant for Johnson as entertaining Phoebe Rush’s guests. White musicians, jealous of Johnson, made touring difficult. In 1821, white players resigned from the Old Guard State Fencibles rather than perform with a “colored band.” During a visit to Boston in 1832, white bands refused to parade until Johnson’s group was excluded. In Pittsburgh in 1843, while playing for a temperance organization, Johnson’s concert was interrupted by a racist and anti-temperance mob. Several members of Johnson’s ensemble were injured during the confrontation and the following evening’s performance was cancelled.

Far more satisfying to Johnson were his appearances in the African American community, such as his concert for the Philadelphia Library of Colored Persons at St. Thomas’s Church in 1841. Johnson planned a religious music program featuring classics by Haydn and Philadelphia black composer A.J. R. Connors. The concert finale consisted of “a Grand Solo and Chorus Multitude of Angels,” as one observer described it. As early as 1827, a newspaper advertisement informed Philadelphians of a “sacred concert” by Johnson and compa­ny at the African Presbyterian Church on Seventh Street. As late as 1841, Johnson and his fifty-piece orchestra performed an oratorio with the one-hundred-and-fifty-voice Colored Choral Society at both black and white churches. Although most historians emphasize Johnson’s work as a composer of military marches and dance ditties, his repertoire included religious music.

In autumn 1837, Johnson and four members of his ensem­ble, William Appo, Aaron Conner, Edward Roland, and Francis Seymour, toured France and England. In England, Johnson advertised that he would be playing at the Argll Rooms, a prestigious London hall for small concert groups. Johnson’s musicians received mixed reviews from the critics, several of whom thought that they were American Indians. The high point of the visit was a performance before Queen Victoria – thanks to longtime patrons James and Phoebe Rush. James Rush’s brother Richard was an American diplomat in London, and through him Johnson was able to obtain an audience with the Queen. Music historian Eileen Southern believes Johnson may have performed during Easter Week in 1838, during which Queen Victoria hosted concerts at Wind­sor Palace, or on May 18, 1838, when Richard Rush was presented to her on her nineteenth birthday. According to legend, Queen Victoria was so impressed with Johnson’s music that she presented him with a silver bugle.

He returned to Philadelphia during summer 1838, enter­taining Saratoga’s summer colonists and later touring. He gave music lessons in violin. He continued to compose, sometimes with surprising results. During the Christmas season of 1843, for example, Johnson appeared at Philadel­phia’s Chinese Museum where he played his new Railroad Gallop. A newspaper advertisement described Railroad Gallop as parodying “the getting up of steam … passengers about entering the cars, moving ahead rather than slow, then in full speed; bells ring, letting off steam.” What an extraordinary offering for Philadelphians still unaccustomed to lumbering steam locomotives in 1843!

Frank Johnson died on April 6, 1844, leaving a widow, Helen, but apparently no children. The funeral, held at St. Thomas’s Church, was said to be one of the largest ever witnessed in Philadelphia. Johnson was buried in the church graveyard. Legend holds that the silver bugle given to Johnson by Queen Victoria was placed in his coffin. In lasting tribute, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commis­sion dedicated a state historical marker honoring Frank Johnson in 1992. Heralded as a great musician in his day, Johnson represented the best in music that Philadelphia had to offer. Whether playing in militia groups, for the aristocracy, for the black community, or for Queen Victoria’s court, Frank Johnson stirred the hearts of his listeners. He truly earned the epithet “the leader of the band.”


For Further Reading

Davis, Susan. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nine­teenth Century Philadelphia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Jones, Charles K., and Lorenzo K. Greenwich II. A Choice Collec­tion of the Works of Francis Johnson. New York: Point Two Publications, 1987.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983.

Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.


Eric Ledell Smith, Harrisburg, is a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s division of history. A gradu­ate of New York University and the University of Michigan, he is the author of Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian and Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873-1993. With Joe William Trotter, he co-edited African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Per­spectives, copublished in 1997 by the PHMC and the Pennsylva­nia State University Press. He is co-editor, with Leroy Hopkins, of African Americans in Pennsylvania, a pamphlet in the PHMC’s “Peoples of Pennsylvania” series. His work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Pennsylva­nia History, The Journal of Erie Studies, Pittsburgh Histo­ry, Adams County History, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Washington History, and SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women.