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David & 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.