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David and Art - America's Sorrow Songs

Reaching beyond show tunes and contemporary pieces, the music of Jules Bledsoe is both deeply personal and resonant.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Waco native and internationally renowned singing star Jules Bledsoe, who was born here in 1897. He had his professional breakthrough playing the role of Joe in the revolutionary 1927 musical Showboat, and was particularly celebrated for his rendition of the song "Ol' Man River." The tune became something of a classic and was the song everyone wanted to hear him sing. 

But his interests ranged far beyond showtunes and the contemporary. He loved to sing works from the European tradition-Brahms, Beethoven, Verdi, art songs of the Romantic period. But he also loved songs that were more personal to him. In many of his vocal recitals both in the United States and Europe, he would include a section of old spiritual songs with a deep and resonant history, a history with its roots in 19th century American slavery.

Wesley Morris is a cultural critic who's written for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. In his essay on music in The 1619 Project he notes that for African-Americans in the 19th century, songs were "a mode by which singers and musicians could be completely free, free in the only way that would have been possible under enslavement: through art, through music." What they created was a "music born of feeling, of play, of exhaustion, of uncertainty, of anguish. Of existential introspection. It was a music whose depth could elude its own makers."

Of the songs of the enslaved people that he himself heard when he was young, Frederick Douglass, wrote "I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of Slavery, then the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do."

Bledsoe knew that there was a limit to what a small group of African American artists that broke into the scene in the 1920s could do in pursuit of broader equality and rights. Artists like himself, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong were pioneers to be sure but what came next was what counted.

"For we must prove by the excellence of the many, rather than that of the few, that we as a race 'Got Wings," he wrote in 1928, referencing the old spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings." But, he acknowledged, "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."

As I said a couple of weeks ago at the Art Center Waco, I want to see that remark engraved on the base of a Jules Bledsoe monument here in Waco.

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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.