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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnston, Francis Charles (Massa) (1880–1953)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Francis Charles (Massa) Johnston (1880-1953), bandmaster, was born on 30 December 1880 in Sydney, son of David Johnston, a Scottish-born engineer (and bagpiper), and his wife Isabella, née Kiernan, from Ireland. At an early age Frank went to Melbourne where he attended St Ignatius' School, Richmond. There in the school band he came under the influence of James Hore, who had qualified at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, Twickenham, Middlesex, England, and pioneered brass bands in Victoria. Johnston was infected by 'the romance' of the German bandsmen playing in the streets of Melbourne and, while still only a boy, his love of southern African-American music earned him the nickname 'Massa'.

Having learnt to play the tenor horn, Johnston later added the cornet and euphonium to his repertoire; he often rose at 5 a.m. to practise in a nearby quarry. He joined Richmond City Band in 1900, the year the South Street competitions at Ballarat first included band music; in 1903 he won the euphonium section with a score of ninety-nine. That year he began a fifty-year association with the Collingwood Citizens' Band. By 1906 he was conductor, and his skill in band training matured rapidly: by 1908 he had taken the band to victory in the A-grade competition, the first of many at State and national level under his leadership.

On 16 October 1909 at St John's Catholic Church, Clifton Hill, Johnston married Agnes Frances Armstrong. As the brass band movement grew in popularity, he embarked on a full-time career as a band trainer. In 1920 he succeeded the trumpeter Edward T. Code, father of E. P. Code, as conductor of the Victorian Police Band. Then in 1922 Johnston took over the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band. A hard taskmaster who attracted loyal and devoted players, he could convey exactly the tone colour and style he wanted and instil the discipline of playing while marching in perfect time. Under his tutelage 'Melbourne's musical firemen' not only graced every major public occasion in their own city, they also visited every capital in Australia where they 'set the town on fire' each time. With their 'mellow brilliance of tone and exceptional elasticity of rhythm' they were 'arguably the finest all brass combination produced' in Australia.

Johnston's busy conducting schedule included the St Kilda Citizens' Band from 1921 and the Footscray City Band from 1934. His passion extended to school bands where instruments were provided for working-class children. A sustained campaign bore fruit in 1930 with the establishment of a state schools contest supported by the William Gillies bequest. As conductor of the Hyde Street, Footscray, school band Johnston was invincible. His skill in quickly bringing young, inexperienced players up to A-grade standard had been remarked upon from his earliest days. Notwithstanding success in over 600 championships, the legacy of this 'genius in brass band music' might best be measured by the number of players who passed through his hands to become the core of Melbourne's post-war bands.

A solidly built man of medium height with a habit of chewing his thumb, at 68 Johnston was still running three laps of the South Melbourne oval every morning to maintain the fitness necessary for his rigorous conducting schedule. The Fire Brigade Band was disbanded due to changed conditions of employment in 1950. Ill health forced him into semi-retirement in 1951 after the Collingwood band once again won the Australian Championships.

Massa Johnston had played in and led brass bands that farewelled Australian soldiers from the Boer War to World War II, and entertained crowds at Melbourne Cup carnivals and football finals for half a century. He died on 17 January 1953 at St Kilda and was buried with Catholic rites in Warringal cemetery, Heidelberg. His wife, four sons and one daughter Helen Taylor, a fine pianist and composer who became a band adjudicator, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • In Those Days: Collingwood Remembered (Melb, 1983)
  • S. Wilde, Life Under the Bells (Melb, 1991)
  • T. Herbert (ed), The Brass Band Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Milton Keynes, UK, 1991)
  • G. M. Hibbins, A Short History of Collingwood (Melb, 1997)
  • J. Greaves and C. Earl, Legends in Brass (Kangaroo Flat, Vic, 2001)
  • Australasian Bandsman, 4, no 6, June-July 1958, p 20
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 36, no 1, Feb 1965, p 30
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Dec 1947, Weekend Magazine, p 2
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Jan 1953, p 3
  • private information.

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Johnston, Francis Charles (Massa) (1880–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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