For some time now, the Penn Library has been quietly building its collection of “Virtual Exhibitions.” The most recent addition, posted just a few days ago, is Francis Johnson: Music Master of Early Philadelphia.
If, like me, you didn’t catch this exhibit when it appeared in Van Pelt Library’s Eugene Ormandy Gallery in 2008, the online version offers the same materials and the same detailed look at the life of 18th-century African-American musician Frank Johnson.
Here, from the exhibit, is some background on Johnson:
Francis (“Frank”) Johnson (1792-1844) was a Philadelphia musician, bandleader, and composer. Little is known of his musical training, but by his mid-twenties he had become an accomplished violinist and cornetist and led a dance band that was a favorite among the elite of Philadelphia. His talents eventually were renowned far beyond his hometown through tours of England and the American Midwest during the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Johnson was also an African American, and although a free man, he lived in pre-Civil War America, a time when—even in free states—societal racism imposed limits on the activities of African Americans. His accomplishments were ambitious and remarkable given the overt and sometimes hostile racism he faced, particularly when touring outside Philadelphia in areas where he was not known.
His musicmaking centered on two traditions of Philadelphia high society: evening entertainment, including balls and dances, for which Johnson’s string and brass bands provided cotillions, waltzes, and quadrilles suitable for dancing and socializing; and assemblies and processions of regional militia, for which Johnson’s brass band played marches and quicksteps.
Johnson was born on 16 June 1792 in Philadelphia to unknown parents. By the time of his birth, a thriving community of free African Americans had been established in Philadelphia. Although he spent his summers performing in the resort hotels of Saratoga Springs and made occasional regional excursions with his bands, Philadelphia remained his home throughout his life. He died in Philadelphia on 6 April 1844 at the age of 52 after an extended illness. Following his death, Johnson’s band continued performing under the direction of bandmember Joseph Anderson. The band eventually dissolved during the years of the Civil War.
The virtual exhibition incorporates a host of materials and information about Johnson, including his performances for the Philadelphia elite; his instruments and music; and his trip to England. In addition to documents, sheet music and photographs, there are a number of audio recordings of Johnson’s compositions.
For those who want to delve still further into Frank Johnson’s life and work, I also discovered this lecture by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Associate Professor of Music.
You can check out the library’s other 40-some virtual exhibitions here.