The response to Francis Johnson’s promenade concerts

Francis Johnson was an African-American musician and composer during the early 19th century. He was known in Philadelphia as a professional musician but his even greater achievement was being a successful African-American composer in an institutionally racist society during a time when African-Americans were greatly discriminated against. Johnson was also well known for starting and leading an all African-American band that performed solely for Black communities. His fame would even allow him to travel to Europe, performing there and learning European musical styles. Perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments was bringing those styles of music to America.

After coming back from the first of few trips to Europe, Johnson led his all African-American band in Philadelphia’s first set of promenade concerts in 1838 and 1839. Not only was this performance a first due to the music, but it was also a first because of the racial composition of the band and composer. With the social climate in America during the time, one might wonder how this man was able to perform concerts like this or what the response to these concerts was like.  

Eileen Southern was an African-American musicologist, researcher, author, and teacher who primarily focused on Black American music styles. According to her primary source research, Johnson’s concerts were received very well, packing the concert halls for every performance and leaving the audiences impressed. 

A socialite, Sidney George Fisher wrote a review in his diary that talked about how successful Johnson’s promenade concerts were in the eyes of the public.

Although some of the comments on Johnson’s promenade concerts were bad, they shined light on how popular the concerts were. For example, in a review by a Scottish phrenologist, George Combe, who rented the floor below Johnson’s performances, the concerts were often attended by thousands of people who would applaud extremely loud after each piece.

The Public Ledger, a popular magazine, would often encourage its readers to attend Johnson’s concerts as the publishers of the magazine viewed Johnson as a very popular and well established and popular composer and band leader.

Due to the institutionally racist society during Francis Johnson’s time, reviews of this positive nature for a band composed entirely of African-Americans and led by an African-American, might seem crazy. However, due to Johnson’s prior success as a composer and musician, he was able to build a very high reputation that caused audiences to flock to his concerts. Johnson’s promenade concerts demonstrated some of his greatest accomplishments as a composer; integrating black and white audiences and bringing new styles of European music to America.



Southern, Eileen. “Frank Johnson of Philadelphia and His Promenade Concerts.” The Black Perspective in Music 5, no. 1 (1977): 3–29.

Frank Johnson: Successful Black Musicians Pre-Civil War Era

[Francis Johnson.]

Although the America of the Pre-Civil War Era presented racial discrimination and bias in most career paths, music was one of the few platforms in which both white and black musicians could successfully perform. Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844) was among one of these musicians. As a composer, bandleader, and trumpeter, Johnson possessed a diverse range of musical talents and ability which he drew upon for his concerts. His musicians were also multi-talented and would often switch instruments halfway through their concerts.

johnson review

This brief concert review from the Boston Musical Gazette on Oct 31, 1838 gives an insight into the positive reception that Frank Johnson and his band received after their performances. The song mentioned in the review, The Last Rose of Summer is based off of a poem by Thomas Moore. Though nearly 70 years later, this recording of soprano Elizabeth Wheeler from 1909 is the same basic melody that was performed at Johnson’s concert.

The Keyed Bugle referenced in the performance was a recent instrument introduced around 1810 but fading out before the end of the civil war in 1850. An illustration of the Keyed Bugle can be found in the 1941 book Soldiers of the American Army, 1775-1941, by Frederick Todd.

Corps d'Afrique, 1864.

Jeff Stockham of the Federal City Brass gives a brief history and demonstration of what the Keyed Bugle sounds like on YouTube:

The Boston Musical Gazette’s article is enlightening as a more detailed description of the type of music and instrumentation may have been used at Francis “Frank” Johnson’s concerts. Particularly with Pre-Civil War music and musicians, it is difficult to discover detailed accounts due to the lack of recordings from this time. This means that a heavier reliance must be placed on written newspaper reviews or eyewitness accounts. In this particular instance, some valuable information can be gathered simply from the short paragraph found in the Boston Musical Gazette: the positive reception of the concert by the audience, a title of one of the pieces performed, and a reference to one of the unique contemporary instruments used.