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article imageWho was James Bland?

By Alexander Baron     Oct 22, 2013 in Entertainment
James Bland was born 159 years ago today, but the songwriter once known as the world's greatest minstrel man was nearly written out of history.
When Stephen Foster died in 1864, few people would have thought his successor would have been a Northerner, and a Negro at that, but James Bland filled Foster's shoes and then some, doing something Foster never did, travelling to Europe and taking his music with him.
James Allen Bland was born at Flushing, New York, the son of the freeborn Allen Bland, who became the first Negro Examiner of Patents.
Stephen Foster aside, Bland had much in common with another music legend, John Denver, who likewise had a distinguished father. Both flunked out of higher education to pursue an at best dubious career, and both died in tragic if entirely different circumstances, although at much the same age.
By the time Bland came of age, blacks in the Deep South were just emerging from generations of slavery, and naturally the transition was awkward. Many of those with musical talents found their way into minstrel shows. Although minstrels date to Mediaeval Europe, American minstrels were a different kettle of fish. They were often known as nigger minstrels - at that time the dreaded N word did not have the same pejorative connotations it does today. White artists performed in blackface, as did black ones. Racial stereotypes aside, this was all good clean fun, and it was possible for a man who had no regular trade to make a passable living. James Bland made not simply a good living but an excellent one.
Bland does not appear to have left any sort of memoir, and his time in Europe especially is sketchy, but it is likely that after mastering the banjo he played around Washington until 1875 when he became the manager of and starred in the Original Black Diamonds in Boston, moving on to Bohee Brothers Minstrels, Sprague's Georgia Minstrels and Haverly's Colored Minstrels. Travelling to England with Haverly, he performed to packed houses and turnaway crowds, including later as a solo performer.
While in London especially he found not only fame but fortune. Unfortunately, like so many stars since and probably not a few before, Bland was a grasshopper rather than an ant, and he returned home at the turn of the century with little or nothing to show for his triumphant odyssey.
The turn of the 20th Century saw too the rise of other forms of black music, most notably ragtime. He turned to writing a full blown musical, The Sporting Girl, but it was not a success. James Bland died in May 1911 from tuberculosis, and was buried with little or no fanfare. It was not until 1939 that his grave was located and a proper headstone erected on it.
Although he was known as the world's greatest minstrel man, it was as a songwriter that Bland excelled; his two greatest songs were written early on in his career: Carry Me Back To Old Virginny and the evergreen Oh, Dem Golden Slippers! These are both what are known as coon songs, which again at that time did not have the pejorative connotations it does today.
James Bland is believed to have written over seven hundred songs, but he copyrighted less than forty, not the sort of oversight one would expect from the son of a patent lawyer. A few of his efforts can be found in the SongFacts database.
The second half of the 20th Century has been kinder to Bland. There are two housing projects named after him: one in the town of his birth, the other in the Deep South. In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
There is also a James Bland Foundation; details of the Bland Music Scholarship Competition for 2014 can be found on its website.
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