James A. Bland
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). 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 Morning in the Bright Light" (1879), "In the Evening by the Moonlight" (1879), "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers" (1879) (the theme song for the long-running Philadelphia Mummers Parade), "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" (1880) and "De Golden Wedding" (1880). His best-known song is "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878), which, in a slightly modified form, was the official State Song of Virginia from 1940–1997. It was retired and designated "state song emeritus" in the latter year, because of controversy over its racial nature.
Often called "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man", Bland toured the United States, as well as Europe. Bland's earliest recorded minstrel performance was with the Original Black Diamonds of Boston in 1875. 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. Music historian Alec Wilder calls Bland the black writer who "broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices." Bland was one of the most prolific minstrel composers of all time; he is reputed to have written over six hundred songs, though only about fifty were published under his name.
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. The Lions Club of Virginia also assisted in this effort.
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.
- Black Diamonds Playbill, 1875. American minstrel show collection, 1823-1947: MS Thr 556.251. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
- Haywood, Charles. "Bland, James A.." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 10, 2014.
- James Bland Biography
- "Bland, James A. (1854-1911)". blackpast.org. Retrieved December 15, 2014.
- Lex, Joe. A Short History of James A. Bland
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- Carry Me Back to old Virginny webpage, Lions Club
- Lions Clubs of Virginia - Bland Music Scholarships Program
- Bland Houses
- James A. Bland at Find a Grave