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Baritone, composer and actor Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas, on December 29, 1897

 

Julius Bledsoe as a youth (date unknown)  

“Ol’ Man River” sheet music, first page  

Julius (Jules) Bledsoe, black baritone and composer, was born on December 29, 1897, in Waco, Texas, the son of Henry L. and Jessie (Cobb) Bledsoe. He attended Central Texas Academy in Waco from about 1905 until his graduation as class valedictorian in 1914. He then attended Bishop College in Marshall, where he earned a B.A. in 1918. He was a member of the ROTC at Virginia Union University in Richmond in 1918–19 and studied medicine at Columbia University in New York City between 1920 and 1924. While attending Columbia, he studied voice with Claude Warford, Luigi Parisotti, and Lazar Samoiloff. He was sponsored by the impresario Sol Hurok for his professional singing debut on April 20, 1924, at Aeolian Hall in New York. As a concert artist Bledsoe performed in the United States and Europe. He was praised for his ability to sing in several languages, for his vocal control and range, and for his power to communicate through music. In 1926 he performed as the baritone Tizan, the leading role in the opera Deep River.

 

His best-known achievement was his portrayal of Joe in Florenz Ziegfeld's 1927 production of Jerome Kern's Showboat. His interpretation of "Ol' Man River" made the song an American classic. He recreated this role in the film version of Showboat in 1929. In his versatile career of nearly twenty years Bledsoe performed with such distinguished musical organizations as the Boston Symphony Chamber Players (1926), the BBC Symphony in London (1936), and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (1937). He sang the role of Amonasro in Giuseppe Verdi's Aïda with the Cleveland Stadium Opera (1932), the Chicago Opera Company at the Hippodrome in New York (1933), and the Cosmopolitan Opera Company, also at the Hippodrome (1934). A highlight of his career was his performance in the title role for the European premiere, in Amsterdam, of Louis Gruenberg's opera The Emperor Jones (1934). In 1940 and 1941 Bledsoe worked in films in Hollywood. He played the part of Kalu in Drums of the Congo, and, although his name did not appear in the credits, he probably played in Safari, Western Union, and Santa Fe Trail.

 

He wrote several patriotic songs and songs in the style of spirituals and folk songs. Some of his compositions were "Does Ah Luv You?" (1931); "Pagan Prayer" (date unknown), on a poem by Countee Cullen; "Good Old British Blue" (1936); and "Ode to America" (1941). He wrote an opera, Bondage (1939), based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Bledsoe's African Suite, a set of four songs for voice and orchestra, was featured with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, directed by Wilhelm Mengelberg. After a war bond tour Bledsoe died, on July 14, 1943, in Hollywood, from a cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Waco.

 

Source: Lynnette Geary, “Bledsoe, Julius Lorenzo Cobb,” Handbook of Texas Online, Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Home, Home, Home

This spiritual speaks of a common theme found throughout traditional African American music - the joy found in death. Despite the dreary reality that African Americans faced during Bledsoe’s lifetime, songs like this one capture the bright faith that African Americans held onto. The hope of a joyous reunion in heaven is captured in this upbeat song featuring syncopated rhythms and a memorable tune.

Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder

This spiritual centers around the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder. In the book of Genesis, Jacob dreams of a ladder, or stairway, that reaches from Earth to Heaven. As angels ascend and descend the ladder, God stands at the top of the ladder and promises to bless Jacob and his descendants. This biblical covenant inspired this spiritual metaphor of climbing on God’s promises toward “that great day”. Bledsoe’s arrangment features strophic verses, a swinging tempo in 2/4, syncopation, and lilted jazz notes.

The Farewell

This art song is an original poem and song written by Bledsoe. Setting the scene of a loved one departing, Bledsoe paints the text in the piano by contrasting the shore, depicted as held chords in 4/4, from the ocean, depicted as arpeggiated triplets and quintuplets. Although the piano line runs rapidly throughout the piece, the vocal melody is pleasant singable, and reminiscent of patriotic and popular songs of the mid-twentieth century.

I Opened My Window

This beautiful art song depicts joy after a prolonged episode of sadness. The poet’s vivid painting of nature is brought to life with Bledose’s bright and cheerful composition. Glittering throughout the piano and vocal line are chromatic notes that quickly give way to sonorous harmonies, a marked metaphor for sadness quickly dissipating into happiness at the encounter of a song.

Bledsoe concert program, 1937  
Jules Bledsoe’s “Ode to America” manuscript  
Jules Bledsoe (playing piano) with Vaudeville songwriter, singer and pianist Turner Layton  
Town Hall Program   
Jules Bledsoe as Amonasro in “Aida,” ca. 1937  
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