James A. Bland

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Sheet music cover for "James Bland's 3 Great Songs", 1879.
Not to be confused with Sir James Lamb, 1st Baronet.

James Alan Bland (October 22, 1854 – May 5, 1911), also known as Jimmy Bland, was an African-American musician and song writer.

Biography[edit]

Bland was one of 8 children born in Flushing, New York to a free family. His father was one of the first U. S. Negro college graduates (Oberlin College, 1845). Because white men in blackface dominated the field of U. S. minstrel shows, Bland did not get very far in his U. S. minstrel career before the abolition of slavery in the United States. Beginning with an eight-dollar banjo purchased by his father, he was performing professionally by age 14.

Bland was educated in Washington, DC and graduated from Howard University in 1873. He wrote over 700 songs, including "In the Evening by the Moonlight," "O Dem Golden Slippers" (the theme song for the long-running Philadelphia Mummers Parade) and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny", published in 1878, which, in a slightly modified form, was the official State Song of Virginia from 1940-1997.

Often called "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man", Bland toured the United States, as well as Europe. Beginning in 1881, he spent 20 years in London before returning to the United States. Bland toured Europe in the early 1880s with Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels and remained in England to perform as a singer/banjo player without blackface. Appearing as "The Prince of Negro Songwriters," he was invited to give command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, and that after Stephen Foster, Bland is "the most distinguished creator of sentimental songs about the Negro and the South" and the "first major black popular song composer" to emerge from the black minstrel show. Music historian Alec Wilder calls Bland the black writer who "broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices."

James A. Bland spent his later years in obscurity. He died from tuberculosis May 5, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Some sources, including his tombstone, give a death date of May 6, 1911.) Bland was buried in an unmarked grave without a funeral at Merion Memorial Park, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. In 1939 his grave was found by American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) with the assistance of the editor of The Etude magazine, James Francis Cooke. His grave was landscaped and a monument was erected.[1] The Lions Club of Virginia also assisted in this effort.[2]

The Lions Clubs of Virginia sponsor a music contest for school students called the "Bland Contest" in honor of James A. Bland. The Annual Bland Music Scholarships Program was established in 1948 to assist and promote cultural and educational opportunities for the musically talented youth of Virginia.

James Bland was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. A housing project in Flushing, Queens is named after him. A separate housing project in Alexandria, Virginia is also named for Bland.

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