Jules Bledsoe (1897-1943)
by Randye Jones
Baritone, composer and actor Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas, on December 29; however, several sources list either 1897 or 1898–his gravestone has 1899 printed upon it–as his birth year. However, the 1900 United States Census lists the child as age three, born in December 1897, and residing in the home of his uncle. He was the only child of Henry L. and Jessie Cobb Bledsoe. Within two years of the child’s birth, his parents had separated, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.
Young Julius was taught to sing and play the piano by his aunt Mae Ollie, his mother, and other women of the household. Under Ollie Mae’s coaching, he made his first concert appearance at age 5 at Waco’s New Hope Baptist Church, which Bledsoe’s late grandfather, Stephen Cobb, had founded and served as its pastor.
Bledsoe attended the Central Texas Academy, a preparatory school for Negroes, graduating as valedictorian in 1914. He studied liberal arts and music at Bishop College, a Negro school in Marshall, Texas, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1918. He briefly lived in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, working as a secretary and providing musical programming for Civilian Chaplain Service. He also served in the Virginia Union University ROTC during the final months of World War I. He then settled in Brooklyn, New York, where he found work as a musician. He was admitted into the medical program at Columbia University in 1920. However, when his mother died shortly afterward, he dropped out of the program, moved to Chicago, and began training to become a professional musician.
Opportunities for African American singers–especially male singers–were nearly non-existent on the concert or operatic stage. Most of the few who found any success did so by traveling to Europe to establish a professional career. Bledsoe was an exception. He was able to sign with musical agent Sol Hurok, who would manage contralto Marian Anderson a decade later, and gave his professional debut at New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924. A New York Times review of the recital stated: “His voice has the velvety quality peculiar to his race, with the tender melting pianos which the famous Roland Hayes, his contemporary, has so successfully cultivated. It is possible that Mr. Bledsoe may run the tenor a close second in the matter of popularity.”1
In 1926, he premiered the role of Tizan in the opera Deep River by Frank Harling and Laurence Stalling. The opera had the distinction of being the first American opera to feature a racially mixed cast. The New York Morning Telegraph’s review stated that:
The singing star of the cast, however, is Julius Bledsoe. The eminent negro artist gave us several recitals last year, and he has a baritone voice of truly exceptional quality. He is a singer who can pick the heart right out of your body–if you don’t look out. And in the second act he showed last night that he is a very fine actor as well.2
As Bledsoe’s professional career progressed, he changed his first name from Julius to Jules. In December 1927, he premiered the role of Joe for the musical Show Boat. The musical was based on the 1926 book by Edna Ferber, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The show’s premiere was significantly delayed to the point where several cast members, including Paul Robeson–who was initially signed for the role of Joe, had other commitments. Bledsoe was able to step into the role. His performances of “Ol’ Man River” made him an audience favorite not only through the more than 500 performances of the original production but throughout the rest of the singer’s career, including reprising the role in the 1929 Universal Studios motion picture release of Show Boat. Bledsoe’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” in the film is captured in the video above.
While songs like “Ol’ Man River” (pictured to the right–click on image to enlarge) contained racially derogatory lyrics, the show’s story was the first time an American musical dealt with the subject of racial discrimination. In 1994, baritone William Warfield–who would gain his own notoriety from playing the role two decades later–talked about one impact of Bledsoe’s premiere as Joe:
I had always thought that he was the reason that [Old Man River] was in E flat, because [I was told that] he was actually a heldentenor, but [when I heard him it] didn’t sound like a real high voice. And [I was told] he used to go up to a high note at the end in “Old Man River.” B flat I think it was, but the recording he made didn’t do that at all. It sounded like just an ordinary baritone range voice, but I had heard from people who tried to describe him to me that he was sort of a high tenor. So in the “Old Man River” the lowest note written was a B flat, but that was not what he did on the record. It sounded low. Now it could possibly be that that was later. That record was made later in life, but he still didn’t sound like a heldentenor. It sounded like a straight baritone to me… His voice to me sounded more or less like the Todd Duncan type of baritone.3
Bledsoe concertized extensively both across the United States and Europe. His programs combined European art songs with Negro spirituals composed by himself as well as composers such as H. T. Burleigh and Clarence Cameron White, and popular songs, usually including “Ol’ Man River.” The baritone’s singing style reflected the challenge regularly faced by African American Classical performers with the “difficult task of trying to fit into two different worlds. He was expected to project the emotional expression associated with black music, and, as a concert singer, he had to cultivate the sophisticated, urbane style associated with art music. That he was able to blend the two styles is evident by his successes, but sometimes the quality of his presentation became too forced and affected under the strain.”4
In addition to his live performances, Bledsoe made several audio recordings for the Decca, Royale, and Joe Davis labels standard works from his concert repertoire, including “Ol Man River.” His performance and composition of Negro spiritual settings reflected his belief “that spirituals were the only real American music, ‘sprung out of American soil, the product of American problems and thought, only bondage and oppression could have wrung such sad soul stirring melodies and music from any hearts. It is only proper that I should employ these melodies.’ ([Bledsoe] Papers, 1931)”5
He returned to the United States in 1932 and took roles in two operas staged by the Cleveland Stadium Opera Company. In the first he created the leading role of the Voodoo Man for the premiere of Shirley Graham’s Tom-Tom, then he played Amonasro in the company’s production of Aida with only one day’s notice.
Although Bledsoe’s productivity as a composer has yet to be fully cataloged, his vocal work ranged from spiritual settings to popular songs to opera. He wrote a tribute to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard and complimented highly. Musical manuscripts by Bledsoe are held by Baylor University in its Texas Collection and at The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He also composed the African Suite for voice and orchestra, a work of four songs that described the four stages of life that he premiered with the BBC Symphony in 1936 and the Concertgebouw Orchestra the following year. His work also reflected his comfort with multiple languages.
Like other African Americans, Bledsoe found that his professional success did not spare him from the prevalence of racism. One specific incident involved a confrontation with police who stopped him during a tour of Show Boat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1930. The local African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, described how the police pulled him and his passenger over, searched the vehicle–a Packard, verbally harassed them with racial epithets and accusations that the car was stolen, and then the police threatened to arrest them. Only after Bledsoe stated that he would sue the city for $10,000 (equivalent to more than $150,000 in 2022) did the police allow them to continue on their way.
Bledsoe also believed that his success gave him a unique opportunity to represent and advocate for other African Americans. He wrote:
It is up to the few of us that have gotten past the sentinels at the gate to fling the gates wide open for our successors. Once the ambitious educated Negro youth turns his steps toward the Theatre as a profession not to be considered too lightly, and revels in it as he does in the professions of Medicine and law: we shall find ourselves able to run the whole gamut of the Theatre and be thoroughly capable of doing the finer things of the stage, whether it be uttering the classic lines of Shakespeare or chanting the masters of song in a manner befitting only the Gods.6
Productions like these, along with concert performances and occasional touring revivals of Show Boat, kept Bledsoe professionally active despite being in the midst of a worldwide Depression. As an example of the impression made by Bledsoe, Geary referenced a review by choral director and composer Eva Jessye of Bledsoe’s interpretation of the Ethiopian king:
… In the duet scene with his daughter, Aida, where he demands that she forget love for country, conjuring up the spectre of her dead mother who curses her disloyalty, he was the personification of retribution, driving her to submission with organ tones of doom (Jessye 1933).7
Bledsoe returned to Europe in late 1933 to sing in a Royal Dutch-Italian Opera production of Aida and, more importantly, to take the lead role in an operatic production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones written by composer Louis Gruenberg. The success of the production led to a tour of European capitals such as Paris, Vienna, and London then an Aeolian Opera Association production featuring an all-Black cast including Abbie Mitchell and Todd Duncan.
In the mid-to-late-1930s, Bledsoe returned to concert performance, partially due to the lack of opportunity to sing opera in the United States and partly because he enjoyed solo performance. He also performed to support philanthropic and racial progress efforts, helping to raise money for projects from the Metropolitan Opera to the American League Against War and Fascism. He also presented a concert at his home church, New Hope Baptist, in December 1935 to an audience of over 500 attendees.
Bledsoe actively performed during what would be his last European period. He was cast as the lead in productions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Boris Godonov, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and as Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. However, Bledsoe realized that the political instability and growing likelihood of war made it too unsafe to continue performing in Europe, so he returned to the United States in 1938. His extended stay in Europe cost him much of his reputation as a singer and had reduced his desirability in the United States. While a concert he gave at New York’s Town Hall in January 1940 provided some financial success, Bledsoe relocated to Los Angeles, California, two months later with the intent to explore the developing film scene of Hollywood.
While he continued to concertize, Bledsoe also took several, sometimes uncredited, acting roles in feature films. He also actively advocated for patriotic causes. He had just returned home from a war bonds promotional tour when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. His aunt Naomi, who had helped raise him as a child, now cared for him in the final days of his life. Jules Bledsoe died on 14 July 1943. His aunt arranged for his body to be returned to Waco, where Bledsoe was funeralized at New Hope Baptist, his home church, and buried in the town’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Jules Bledsoe experienced much in his relatively short life. His papers provide details about his professional life, but as author Brian Reinhart noted:
There is much we do not know about Jules Bledsoe. We don’t know why he chose music in the first place, giving up a place at Columbia University’s medical school. We don’t know what happened to his opera, titled Bondage, which [Horace] Maxile says exists in partially orchestrated “chunks” in libraries in Waco and possibly New York. We’re not sure what Bondage was about. We also do not know much about a fascinating sideline to his career, in which he bought a farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains and converted it into a summer outdoor resort for Black vacationers…. The biggest unknown, however, is his inner life: how he felt about his successes and the barriers in his way, how his Waco upbringing influenced his art, whether he was hurt by his misuse in Hollywood.8
Author Katie Johnson noted the circumstances of Bledsoe’s funeral that also reflected one of the choices he had to make due to the era in which he lived:
Texas would reclaim his body. He is buried in the cemetery across the river from Waco, with a gravestone etched in error. With music from Show Boat carved in the wrong clef, this tombstone hits more than one false note. It not only overlooks his deepest love, opera, but also ignores who he became as a world artist. In death, his body was no longer his own, his life’s narrative not his to construct. The memorial service was attended by an almost entirely black crowd, the one notable exception being the president of Baylor, Dr. A. J. Armstrong, who gave a eulogy. In looking through photos of the funeral, I searched for Freddy. He was nowhere to be seen. There was no place for his partner at this event, proving the regulatory force of the closet and its amplified burden for a black, Southern man from a conservative Baptist community. If Freddy was physically absent, however, his presence was undeniable: his spray of red flowers was lovingly draped over the coffin with the following message on the ribbon–“Your friend, Freddy.” That white satin ribbon constituted in part the material archive of their love. Since discarded, it has become an ephemeral, lost sign of an interracial union that heteronormative racialized rituals of mourning had foreclosed.9
1“Bledsoe, Baritone of ‘Show Boat,’ 44: Negro Singer Who Made a Hit of ’01’ Man River’ in 1927, Dies in Hollywood.” New York Times, 16 July 1943: 17.
2Theodore Stearn. The Morning Telegraph New York N.Y., 1 October 1926.
3Darryl Glenn Nettles. African American Concert Singers Before 1950. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003. 15-16.
4Lynnette G. Geary. “Jules Bledsoe: The Original ‘Ol’ Man River’.” The Black Perspective in Music 17 (1989): 35.
6Jules Bledsoe. “Has the Negro a Place in the Theatre?” Opportunity 6, July 1928, 215.
8Brian Reinhart. “A Pioneering Black Singer’s Compositions, Long Forgotten, May Finally Have an Audience.” Texas Monthly, June 22, 2021: https://www.texasmonthly.com/arts-entertainment/pioneering-black-singer-composer/.
9Katie N. Johnson. “Brutus Jones’s Remains: The Case of Jules Bledsoe.” The Eugene O’Neill Review 36, no. 1 (2015): 23.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: January 4, 2022. Accessed: . http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/jules-bledsoe-biography.