Jules Bledsoe gained a reputation far beyond his hometown of Waco for his burgeoning baritone, performing career, and debut as Joe in Jerome Kern’s Broadway musical “Show Boat.” the character who sings “Ol’ Man River”.
Few people know that Bledsoe also wrote music, composed two operas, spoke five languages, lived and worked in New York during the height of the famous Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, ran a small seaside resort of Catskill Mountains for black guests, starred in movies and shared a radio show with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
There was “a little more to him than ‘Ol’ Man River,'” Horace Maxile, an associate professor of music at Baylor University, said with some understatement.
A celebrated singing career spanning nearly two decades that spanned both coasts and Europe came to an unexpected end on July 14, 1943, when Bledsoe died aged 44 of a brain hemorrhage. in Hollywood, California.
Maxile, known locally for his keyboard skills in contemporary jazz as well as his teaching of music theory, studied Bledsoe’s compositions in the Texas Collection’s extensive Bledsoe Materials Files.
Thanks to his research, Waco audiences may have the chance in the coming months to hear songs and arrangements written by Bledsoe. One of those original songs, “Beside a New Made Grave,” can be heard on the Waco Tribune-Herald video accompanying this article.
The collection’s Jules Bledsoe Papers, contained in eight papers and 12 oversized boxes, include more than two dozen manuscripts of original songs, hymn arrangements and opera fragments written by Bledsoe, many of them in his own handwriting. .
As vast as the Bledsoe papers in the collection are, there may be more material to discover. The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has collections of Bledsoe material, including compositions, from 1931 to 1939. Texas Collection assistant director Paul Fisher said references to Decca Records in Bledsoe’s correspondence raised the possibility that a treasure trove of Bledsoe recordings may be lying in the vaults of a record company.
Maxile decided to explore Bledsoe’s writings after discovering the manuscripts, then found no Bledsoe entries among the 185 composers listed in the “International Dictionary of Black Composers”.
“To me, it’s kind of selfish,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s basically brand new ground, and I had a first chance.”
Waco audiences almost had a chance to hear some of those pieces this month at a concert by students from Baylor and the Waco College of Music scheduled for March 22 at New Hope Baptist Church, l Bledsoe’s home church when he was growing up.
Maxile originally thought of recreating Bledsoe’s debut at Carnegie Hall in 1931, but a lack of music from that concert led him to think of Bledsoe’s Waco appearances instead. He prepared a program of numbers that Bledsoe had sung at Waco concerts in 1925 and 1935 at the church and at the Auditorium Theater.
That March 22 concert, however, was among those canceled this week in Baylor University’s precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Maxile hopes the concert will take place later, perhaps next fall.
Most of Bledsoe’s compositions in the Texas Collection are hymns and spiritual arrangements and a few original songs, almost all apparently intended for him and an accompanist.
Although Bledsoe became known for his singing, Maxile said his Waco family and friends first knew him as a talented pianist. He did not study singing until his days at Bishop College, a course he continued to take while studying medicine at Columbia University from 1920 to 1924.
His piano experience shows in the compositions, which often have elaborate or well-developed piano parts but thin vocal lines because Bledsoe knew he would sing and perform.
“He had a flair for the dramatic, which I think comes from his stage experience,” Maxile said. “He obviously had big hands. (The piano parts) have rolling chords, thick chords, jumping chords.
Maxile compared Bledsoe’s arrangement of the anthem “He Rose” and his original “Beside a New Made Grave”, possibly written for a funeral. The first does not deviate much from the melody and chords found in an arrangement of hymns.
“There’s not a lot of harmonic adventure in there,” he said.
“Beside a New Made Grave,” on the other hand, does more to paint a mood. Set in a minor key, it is dark in tone but builds to a triumphant ending. Listening to the piano accompaniment, one imagines the baritone filling the lyrics with drama and emotion.
Much of his writing reflected his recitals with spirituals, art songs, arias and hymns. But the Texas Collection manuscripts paint a broader picture of the singer’s talents and interests. He wrote in French on some of his compositions, one of the five languages he spoke. While operatic roles in the United States were rarely offered to black performers outside of those with black characters, Bledsoe found work in Europe and toured extensively overseas in 1937 and 1938.
He dabbled in opera, and there are about 20 pages of arias, duets, and a chorus sketched for “Bondage,” his opera based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in the funds of the Texas Collection.
There is also his setting of Countee Cullen’s poem “Pagan Prayer” which suggests Bledsoe’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of intellectual and creative black culture in New York City in the 1920s. Cullen was a leading poet in this movement and a contemporary of Bledsoe.
Not only is it likely that Bledsoe’s contacts in fine and performing arts circles included Renaissance artists, but his business side may have touched this audience as well. In the late 1930s, Bledsoe ran a small resort—Jessie’s Manna Farms, named after her mother, Jessie Cobb Bledsoe, in the Catskill Mountains of New York—that catered to a black clientele.
And while the Waco native was a pioneer as a black opera and stage singer, his fame had its limits due to his era. An oversized album kept by a cousin contains pages filled with newspaper clippings and photos from his career – and the occasional controversy.
A March 3, 1930, front-page article in the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier detailed an incident in which Bledsoe, driving with a friend to a pre-morning breakfast social during a “Show Boat” series, was arrested by the police. .
When he asked why, after showing his license and ID, the police allegedly called him racial epithets and threatened to jail him while they checked his car, a posh Packard convertible in blue , green and cream, had been stolen. The actor threatened to sue the city and was released in time for his matinee performance.
“Bledsoe Victim Of ‘Fresh’ Cops” read the banner headline and an editorial in the same paper suggested “Cops need ‘night school for courtesy'”.
Bledsoe’s creative output, stage and opera career, personal contacts, forays into recording, radio and film paint an intriguing picture of a talented and complicated performer. Fisher of the Texas Collection said scholars and writers had used the collection’s Bledsoe Papers to examine parts of her life, but no one, to her knowledge, had attempted a biography.
“She’s such an interesting and complicated person,” he said.
Certainly more than “Ol’ Man River”.