Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David and Art - The Jules Bledsoe Documentary

Looking back on a local documentary that more people should know about.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving I took part in a discussion at the Art Center Waco, organized by the Deep in the Heart Film Festival. With me was my colleague Horace Maxile from the Baylor School of Music and we screened a documentary about Waco native Jules Bledsoe that was made back in the year 2000. We talked about his life and his music and the age in which he lived. I'm on the record as saying repeatedly that Bledsoe needs a statue here in Waco to honor him in the way that Red Bank, New Jersey has a memorial to Count Basie or New Orleans has one for Louis Armstrong. He deserves it. He was a significant figure in American music.

But if you've not heard of Bledsoe, however, you're far from alone He was born Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe on December 29, 1897 (although his headstone in Greenwood Cemetery here in town says 1899). His grandfather was the first pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church which was formed in 1866, and he grew up singing in the church. (When he was young, he learned from his mother and aunt how to play piano He graduated as valedictorian in 1914 from the Central Texas Academy, a school formed by African American Baptists, then went to Marshall, Texas to attend Bishop College, getting a BA in 1918. He gave his first recital during a visit back home to Waco in 1916. In it, he played piano only-he didn't sing.

Though he had it in mind to be a doctor, and to that end wound up at Columbia University in New York City, his overwhelming musical ability led him in a different direction. (He studied voice and gave his first vocal recital in New York in 1924. Just three years later he landed the role of Joe in the groundbreaking musical Showboat.

It opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre just after Christmas in 1927 and played for almost 600 performances. It was one of the biggest hits of the decade, and Bledsoe's performance of "Ol' Man River" became his signature song and a vivid part of American musical culture. But for him, music didn't just mean popular show tunes. The recitals he gave-and he gave recitals from Waco to Amsterdam-were replete with classics of the European tradition.

But he often included a section of spirituals with which he grew up in his recitals. Those tunes went way back into his past, learned from his mother and grandfather. They also went deep into past of the United States. They were songs of the enslaved in the south.

Let's talk more about this soon.

“The Godmother of Rock and Roll"
If you wonder where the sound of rock and roll guitar came from, look to a woman from Arkansas.
David and Art - Art, From History
This week on David and Art, David Smith highlights Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian composer whose music brings to life tales from Russia's past, shedding light on the cultural identity and artistic evolution of the nation during the 19th century.
David and Art - The Story of The Scream
Host David Smith delves into the captivating tale behind the infamous theft of a masterpiece, intertwining the artist's turbulent life with the enigmatic allure of one of the world's most iconic paintings.
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.
David and Art - Who's Your Favorite?
When it comes to the arts, how do you determine a favorite?
David and Art - Clouds
Innovations that came with industrialization influenced some of the most popular painting we know.
David and Art - The Acorn and the Oak Tree
The gifts that the muses bring to artists are rarely finished products.
David and Art - Culture Wars: Then and Now
Trying to make political points by turning other people against certain artists is a regular feature of American politics.
David and Art - Happy Birthday, Milt
When New Years Day rolls around, it’s also the birthday of an American jazz legend that too few people know about.
David and Art - Realism Was Complicated
There’s complexity in all kinds of art, even the sort that looks simple.

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.