In the early 19th century, Francis Johnson was the entertainer of choice for elite Philadelphia society. A free African American man, Johnson was a bandleader, musician, and composer whose music brought together influences that would go on to pave the way for ragtime, jazz, and “pops” orchestras. Yet his name, like that of so many black American innovators, has been largely forgotten by history.
The Library Company of Philadelphia is telling several of those innovators’ stories in its current exhibition “From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures: Black Creative Re-Imaginings,” on display through Oct. 18. The sheet music for one of Johnson’s compositions is on display in the show, and his story will come into the spotlight on Friday with a lecture and performance by musician and scholar Brian Farrow.
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“Francis Johnson was at the nexus of what became American music,” Farrow said over the phone last week from the Yukon, where he was wrapping up a vacation. “He took early dance hall music, English ballads and operatic pieces, and made them his own, [fusing them into] an American idiom.
“Johnson influenced a lot of people that would take these music styles into the later half of the 19th century,” he said, "until we connect to the beginning of ragtime.”
Old-time music has long been a passion for Farrow, who played in traditional jazz bands as far back as high school and later worked with Dom Flemons, cofounder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He’s also a member of the hip-hop bluegrass band Gangstagrass. While researching early music, Farrow discovered Johnson and immediately recognized the relevance of this obscure figure.
“I hope to contextualize his work and explain why I think his history is important for us today,” he said of his plans for the Library Company program. “We can make him a part of our American music tradition.”
Johnson’s music makes up one part of the story told by “From Negro Pasts,” which displays historical artifacts to help relate the way that black artists have told their own stories throughout American history. The exhibition includes drawings, poems, speeches, love letters, songs, and more from the Library Company’s extensive holdings, touted as the most important collection of African American literature and history before 1900.
Johnson achieved a remarkable level of success, not just in Philadelphia but across the country. He led one of the era’s most popular bands, performing at society balls for Philadelphia’s upper classes as well as for military regiments and at African American churches.
Johnson became the first black man to tour past the Appalachian Mountains and was the first American bandleader to tour Europe, where his ensemble performed before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.
Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens, program director of African American history for the Library Company, compared Johnson to another name rescued from the shadows of history, Solomon Northup. Now famous as the author of Twelve Years a Slave, Northup also worked as a traveling musician whose artistry allowed him access to elite white society.
“There was a niche field of African American male performers who could in some ways wiggle around the color line,” Cooper Owens explained. “It wasn’t that they could escape antiblack racism, but because of their exceptionality in performing they were able to do things as musicians that had been closed to most black people.”
In a way, Cooper Owens continued, the Library Company’s African American History program echoes those accomplishments, bringing neglected histories to light in an unexpected context.
“It isn’t lost on me that the Library Company, [an institution] founded by Benjamin Franklin, is a very patrician and elite space,” she said. “Historically the Library Company had not been a bastion of blackness, yet the program in African American history has become its anchor program because of its large holdings.
"Brian Farrow is really following in the footsteps of Francis Johnson, bringing that kind of showmanship, roots music, history, and education to an audience that had not always been as receptive to privileging black people and black history.”
Francis Johnson at the Roots of American Music, with Brian Farrow
5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, at the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St. Free with registration.
The exhibition “From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures" continues through Oct. 18.