The African American man in this early (around 1845) daguerreotype holds a musical instrument known as a keyed bugle. He is almost certainly a free person, and we can tell this for several reasons. First, his clothing is well tailored and therefore would be expensive, not something given to a slave. Next, the keyed bugle itself is a valuable musical instrument, one played by highly trained musicians. Finally, he holds a sheet of music, a sign that he must have been literate, something nearly impossible, and generally illegal, for slaves.

The keyed bugle was invented in 1810 in Ireland by a man named Joseph Halliday. First employed in the British military, the keyed bugle soon came into wider use by composers and orchestras. In the United States, perhaps the greatest keyed bugle player was an African American man named Francis Johnson (1792-1844), who both composed and performed, and who achieved wide fame for his virtuosity and tremendous success with both white and black audiences. Johnson lived in Philadelphia, where he instructed other free blacks in the keyed bugle, and some of them played with his traveling band. The man in this photography might have been one of Johnson’s students or a member of his circle of performers.

To learn more about the keyed bugle, and to hear it played by the most accomplished modern scholar of this instrument, Ralph Dudgeon, go to this webpage. Dudgeon has also published the definitive study on the instrument, The Keyed Bugle.

You can hear some of Francis Johnson’s compositions, scored for the piano, here. This brief biography, from University of Pennsylvania, provides an overview of Johnson’s life and accomplishments.