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David and Art - Eubie Blake and the Music of America

To kick off black history month Let’s remember a musician whose life spanned a big portion of the country’s history.

James Hubert Blake was born in Baltimore on February 7, that much we know for sure. The year was probably 1887–so that’s 137 years ago day-after-tomorrow. He grew up to be a titan of American music known as Eubie Blake.

As the story goes, when he was four or five, out shopping with his mother, he wandered away and into a music store. He climbed up on the bench of an organ and started playing—fooling around he would later say. Soon his mother showed up and began to scold him, but the manager of the store stopped her and said, this kid’s a genius. Shortly after this, the woman that lived next door to the family started teaching him how to read music and giving him piano lessons for 25 cents a pop.

His mother was adamant that he play religious and classical music only, but there was much more music than that in the air in the United States in the 1890s. I’d play my music lessons the way I was supposed to, he later said, but then when I’d get through, when she was gone, I’d play the same thing in ragtime. “I wanted to play it my way.”

If she heard it, she would tell him to take it out of her house. You want to play ragtime, she said, “you play it in the street.” Turns out he played it in lots of places his mother would have disapproved of. He never stopped playing it.

He wrote his first song, a piece called the Charleston Rag, in 1899. Three years later he was in New York City playing piano with a show called Old Kentucky, for nine performances a week. He was paid $15 a week plus room and board. His big breakthrough came in 1921 when he wrote the music for the revolutionary Broadway musical Shuffle Along. He went on to write scores for four more.

Probably the most famous song he wrote is from Shuffle Along and is called “I’m Just Wild about Harry.” I first learned it when I was little by hearing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck sing it countless times in cartoons. It was also Harry Truman’s campaign song during the presidential election of 1948, which he won.

For a while toward the end of his life he seemed to be rediscovered by mainstream pop culture. He received several honorary degrees from college and universities around the country including Dartmouth, Rutgers, and fittingly the University of Maryland. He appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson always playing a song in addition to sitting there beside Johnny and regaling him with stories. Carson treated him like a national treasure, which he was. In 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he died in 1983 at the age of 96.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.