Category Archives: Arts History

Penn Library launches its latest ‘virtual exhibition’

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.


Filed under Arts History, Music

Arts History Lesson: March

This month’s arts history lesson is a particularly timely one. In mid-January, the University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library made headlines after receiving the papers of Rabbi Chaim Potok. “It’s an honor for us to curate the papers of Chaim Potok,” Carton Rogers, Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries, said at the time. “His publications have had a widespread impact on generations of students and researchers, and we are looking forward to opening his unpublished works to that same audience.”

And so begins our March history lesson on Chaim Potok, the writer, philosopher, painter, scholar and beloved Penn alumnus and professor whose papers (including correspondence, writings, lectures, sermons, clippings, promotional material, memorabilia, and fan mail) are now housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, available for viewing in its reading room during normal business hours.

Herman Harold Potok (Hebrew name “Chaim”) was born in the Bronx on February 17, 1929, to proud parents–and Hasidic eastern European immigrants–Benjamin Max and Mollie. Chaim was a gifted drawer and painter, and began writing fiction at age 16. (He submitted a story to The Atlantic Monthly the following year, and though it wasn’t published, he received a note from an editor asking if he was writing a novel.)

Despite his promise in the arts, Potok’s parent’s didn’t consider writing or painting ways to make a decent living. In fact, he later recalled his mother telling him: “You want to write stories? That’s very nice. You be a brain surgeon, and on the side you write stories.” As he told the New York Times in 1988: ”I grew up, as I’m fond of saying, in a Hasidic world without the beard and the earlocks. It was a very Orthodox world. My father was a Hasidic Jew. He shaved off the beard when he came to the United States in the early 20’s. My mother is a descendant of one of the great Hasidic dynasties. She is a direct descendant of one of the sons of the founder of the dynasty. So, it was a very Orthodox, traditional home, and I went to yeshivas all my childhood.”

Continue reading about Chaim Potok’s life and deep Penn connection.

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Filed under Alumni, Arts History, Written Word

Arts History Lesson: February

Welcome to the February installment of your monthly arts history lesson. Last month, I showed you a Thornton Oakley illustration from 1905. And now for something completely different…

That’s the cover page of “Dreary Weather”–a song that Clay Boland D’26 wrote with Frank Winegar in 1924. (Sample lyric: “I used to find sunshine in your loving eyes. We parted, then clouds came to darken the skies.”) That year, the University was offering a prize for the best original prom song, and Boland won with this fox trot. Thus began his long career as a songwriting dentist.

He teamed up with the Mask and Wig Club a decade later, and in 1937, wrote “The Gypsy in My Soul” (along with fellow alum Moe Jaffe W’23 L’26) for the group’s 50th-annual production. Though not a hit in its time, the song has since become a classic, particularly among jazz musicians. Over the years, it’s been recorded by dozens of artists, including Louis ArmstrongElla FitzgeraldDoris Day, and a very young Liza Minnelli:

In 1946, Time magazine ran a small article about the “Tuneful Dentist,” praising his work on Mask and Wig’s show that year as “some of the best in the Mask & Wig Club’s 58 years.” The author also wrote that Boland “is considering several offers to turn Tin Pan Alley pro, but dentistry pays him too well. ‘Someone else will have to make up my mind,’ says Dr. Boland. ‘It’s a hell of a spot to be in.'”

By the time of his death in 1963, Boland had more than 100 songs registered with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Please send me your images or videos from Penn’s arts-related past. (The not-so-distant past is welcome, too.) Just be sure to include the year, along with a brief description:

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Filed under Alumni, Arts History, Music

Arts History Lesson: January

This is the first installment of what I hope becomes a monthly series, propelled by your submissions. Each month, I’ll feature an image or video from Penn’s arts history: performances, paintings, people — anything arts-related is fair game.

To get the ball rolling, here’s a Penn calendar illustration Thornton Oakley produced in 1905:

Calendar of the University of Pennsylvania, 1905, illustrated by Thornton Oakley. (Image used courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives)

Oakley received his B.S. and M.S. from Penn in architecture and was later hired as head of the Department of Illustration at the Philadelphia Museum’s School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia College of Art). Over the course of his career, his illustrations appeared in numerous books and magazines, including Harper’s Monthly, Collier’s Weekly and National Geographic.

More than a century later, versions of this devoted-yet-disorganized student can still be spotted inside the library — especially during finals and midterms. (And is that a Daily Pennsylvanian I see in the lower left?)

Please send me your images or videos from the Penn arts-related past. (The not-so-distant past is welcome, too.) Just be sure to include the month and year, along with a brief description:


Filed under Alumni, Arts History, Visual Art