James A. "Jimmy" Bland, the greatest African America writer of American Folk Song composed over seven hundred songs, a number of which were outright contributions to Americana.
A SHORT HISTORY OF JAMES A. BLAND
He was born October 12, 1854, at Flushing, Long Island, N.Y., a free American, one of eight children. His family was from Charleston, South Carolina. His father, Allan Bland, an alumnus of Wilberforce University, was one of the first College Trained African Americans. He attended night classes and received his law degree from Howard University, and was the first African American man to be appointed examiner in the United States Patent Office.
Jimmy Bland, as a boy 12 years old and living in Philadelphia, saw an old black man playing a Banjo and singing Black Spirituals. Jimmy was so elated over this that he was determined to have his own Banjo. So he built a crude imitation with old bailing wire for strings, but a larger kid picked a fight with him and tore it up. His father bought Jimmy an eight-dollar Banjo. Soon thereafter the family moved to Washington D.C. Having taught himself to play exceptionally well, Jimmy earned spending money by playing and singing in the streets. By the time he was fourteen he had become professional and was entertaining in hotels, restaurants and for private parties. At fifteen, he started composing some short pieces of his own, but did not record any of them.
He finished high school in Washington and strummed and sang his way partly through Howard University. At seventeen, he tried to put on a musical show at Howard and was banned from the University. While at Howard University, he met a girl, Mannie Friend, who was destined to help shape his future life. Then he met Professor White, an old black man with snow white hair, who recognized Bland's God-given musical talents and began teaching him how to write songs and music. One night while playing and singing in Lafayette Park to his girl friend Mannie, Mr. John Ford, owner of the Ford Theater, saw him and offered to introduce Jimmy to George Primrose, one of the great minstrel men of the time.
The introduction to Primrose was delayed by a trip to Mannie's birthplace in Tidewater, Virginia, which was on Judge White's plantation on the James River, between Charles City and Williamsburg. Here, while James Bland and Mannie Friend were sitting on the bank of the James River, Jimmy composed "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny." Mannie wrote the words down for him as he played and sang it. On returning to Washington, Mr. John Ford introduced Jimmy Bland to George Primrose of Primrose and West. With his one song "Carry Me Back To Ole Virginny," Jimmy, now age 19 made a big hit with Primrose and Billy West and within a week they opened their new show in Baltimore.
Mr. Tom Harvey, owner of the then famous Harvey's Restaurant in Washington, D.C., had Jimmy play and sing his composition "In The Evening By The Moonlight" for the Canvas Back Club, now the Gridiron Club, that met at his restaurant. President Cleveland and General Robert E. Lee were both members and present for the affair. Bland, realizing the limitations of the four-stringed Banjo, added a fifth string to the instrument and it became known as the Bland Banjo.
In his middle twenties, Jimmy worked the minstrel shows and eventually joined Colonel Jack Harvey's minstrel troupe and toured the United States. In 1881, Bland's salary was $10,000.00 a year; the highest ever paid a minstrel man. Then Bland and Harvey's minstrel went to Europe and became a sensation overnight. Jimmy gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace before Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.
When Harvey's show came back to the States, Bland stayed in London. During the twenty years he lived abroad, he toured the continent earning $12,000.00 a year. Up to this time, only three American composers had made a dent in the German music conscience, John Philip Sousa, James A. Bland and Stephen Foster. In 1901, he returned from Europe, penniless and broke, and went back to Washington, D.C.
While abroad he had lived high and dressed well, probably why he and his money soon parted company. Aided by friends, he tried to compose but the old spirit was gone. Eventually, he did compose and write lyrics for a musical production called "The Sporting Girl" which had 18 songs in it. After having sold the work for only $250.00, he gave up and returned to Philadelphia, broke and in very poor health.
Bland died of tuberculosis on May 6,1911. He was buried in Merion Cemetery near Philadelphia, with not even a death notice in the newspaper to mark his passing. The once handsome, happy-go-lucky, good natured, slight of build black man, with wavy hair, light complexion, and who was often called, "The Worlds Greatest Minstrel Man", passed into oblivion. Bland's body remained obscure in the little Merion Cemetery covered with weeds until 1939, when the Lions of Virginia aided by Dr. J. Francis Cooke, editor of Etude Magazine, found his unmarked grave.
Merion Cemetery Location and Directions
The entrance to the Merion Cemetery is at the corner of Rock Hill Road and Bryn Mawr Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, PA, about 2 miles from the Belmont exit of Interstate 76, and about 10 miles from Center City Philadelphia. From I 76, turn south onto Belmont (Should you mistakenly go north, you would be on Green Street going across a bridge.). At the second traffic light, turn right onto Rock Hill Road. Rock Hill curves for about 3/4 of a mile and seems to end at a T-intersection with a traffic light. Turn left at the light but be ready to make another right rather quickly. Follow Rock Hill Road again, paralleling the cemetery until you reach the intersection with Bryn Mawr Avenue. The cemetery entrance is on your right, and there is a memorial plaque at the gate giving some information on James Bland. To get to the gravesite, take the fork left once you enter the cemetery. It is a large stone about 200 feet down the road on your left.
A Special Thanks to Joe Lex, MD
Anyone wishing to visit the burial site of James Bland may contact Doctor Joe Lex at firstname.lastname@example.org. Doctor Joe Lex provided the excellent directions to the cemetery. He resides close to the Merion Cemetery and has offered to supply any additional information, if required.
The rendition of "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny" is provided to the Lions Clubs.
Revised Lyics, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia", State Song Emeritus
Carry me back to old Virginia
That's where the cotton and corn and taters grow There's where the birds warble sweet tender spring-time
There's where this old heart of mine does long to go
That's where I labored so hard for my Father
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
Carry me back to old Virginia
There let me live till I wither and decay
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered
There's where this old life of mine will pass away
Father and Mother have long gone before me
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore
There we'll be happy and free from all sorrow
That's where we'll meet, and will never part no more