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Marking Pennsylvania History

Fame, Respect and Posterity

Frank Johnson's band had a unique way of playing. No one at the time could quite put their finger on it, but this Martinique-born Philadelphia talent knew how to delight audiences, black or white, Saturday night and Sunday morning.

His audiences didn't necessarily know or care, but Johnson combined African-American rhythms with the popular music. And he fit his sounds to each audience, be they Philadelphia's white aristocracy or Philadelphia's free black community. And the band's popularity soared.

At the peak of Johnson's fame, in the summer of 1841, Isaac Mickle, an eighteen-year-old law student, enjoyed the band while on a steamboat rounding the bottom of Philadelphia, from Camden up the Schuylkill River to Gray's Ferry. During a break, Mickle (who fortunately kept a diary) spoke with the "musical genius" about "flats, sharps and naturals" and learned of Johnson's travels in Europe, his reception in Paris, and his audience with Britain's Queen Victoria.

Johnson had about a dozen students, and Mickle soon decided to become one of them by taking up the violin. More than 160 years later, Mickle's legacy is a description of Johnson's studio.

It was a three-story house, near 11th and Lombard Streets, with a stylish doorplate engraved with "Francis Johnson" in capital letters. Mickle entered "a pleasant room on the second floor filled with articles of his profession. Immediately opposite to the door, and suspended in a gorgeous frame, was my visitee's portrait, representing him in uniform, with a bugle in his hand. ... The wall was covered with pictures and instruments of all kinds, and one side of the room was fixed with shelves whereon were thousands of musical compositions, constituting a valuable library. Bass drums, bass violas, bugles and trombones lay in admirable confusion on the floor; and in one corner was an armed composing chair, with pen and ink horn ready, and some gallopades and waltzes half finished."

At Johnson's funeral, only a few years later, friends and family set on his casket the silver bugle presented by Queen Victoria. But fame in life was not followed by respect in death. As Johnson's friend and portraitist Robert Douglass, Jr., wrote, there was not a white face among the thousands who paid their last respects to this man "whose skill electric left its vivid mark."

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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