Francis “Frank” Johnson is what l like to refer to as the great-great grandfather of “Philly Soul”. Born in Philadelphia 1792 (some scholarship cite Martinique as his birthplace), Johnson was a multi-instrumentalist playing violin, bugle and many other instruments. Johnson was the first African-American composer to be published in the United States(1818). I should probably repeat that year: 1818.

Frank Johnson’s band was the toast of Philadelphia Society and played for numerous cotillions and government events during the Antebellum period. This band even toured Europe in the 1830’s.

Throughout his entire career Johnson remained active in the African-American community through conducting orchestras at local churches and even dedicating a piece to the independence of Haiti. Frank Johnson often faced incredible racial persecution during his career. Everything from white bands refusing to march in the same parades to being followed by mobs hurling racial threats and the ever present threat of violence. Frank Johnson died in 1844 after an extended illness.

I wanted to provide a copy of one of his published works for us to consider how remarkable an achievement this was given the time that Frank Johnson was an active composer. I don’t want to get on soapbox here but I am amazed and saddened that having been a lifelong musician the first I ever heard of Frank Johnson was in my next to last semester in college.

We often rail about the importance of music education in schools but just having a status quo education is not enough and in fact I would submit it is part of the problem. We have to do a better job of telling the entire story.

Ivan Orr is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, performer, and writer. A native of Charlottesville, Virginia Ivan was involved with the forming and nascent days of The Music Resource Center as its first Program Director. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Music, Ivan currently resides in Richmond, VA where he maintains an active performance and production schedule while serving as the Music Editor for Grown Folks Music, a position he has held since 2010.