October 22, 2010

Birth of James A. Bland

James A. Bland was born one of 12 children in Flushing, New York on October 22, 1854. He went on to graduate from Howard University; while an undergraduate, his father was also studying law there. It was at Howard that Bland became intrigued by music — to the dismay of his father, the first nonwhite to serve as examiner in the United States Patent Office.

A banjo player, Bland listened to songs sung by former slaves around Washington, D.C. In 1873, he decided to do something with his musical interest and went into show business. He wore blackface, although he was an African-American, to perform in minstrel-shows. Eventually, he joined Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels and the troupe took their show to London in 1881. When the company returned to the United States, Bland stayed behind, building up a following in England until 1896. Soon after, his reputation began to dwindle as his style of comedic performance fell out of fashion. He died of either tuberculosis or pneumonia in Philadelphia in 1911; he was 56.

Bland was a singer, musician, and actor, but was especially recognized for his songwriting — earning him a place in the Songwiters Hall of Fame. He copyrighted some three dozen songs, including his most famous, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878). For a time, it was the Virginia state song; in 1997, the State Senate voted to re-designate it as "state song emeritus," retiring it because of its minstrel history and slight racism. Some words were even re-written (by order of the legislation!):

Carry me back to old Virginia,
There's where the cotton and corn and 'tatoes grow,
There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There's where this old darkey's dreamer's heart am long'd to go.
There's where I labor'd so hard for old Massa my loved ones,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely,
Than old Virginia, the State where I was born.

*For the information in this post, I am particularly indebted to Frank Cullen's Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America.

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