On May 11, 1941, the NBC radio network broadcast a concert from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York. In the presence of the president’s family, a baritone soloist and backing choir performed a new work titled “Ode to America,” dedicated to Roosevelt and introduced with remarks by his wife, Eleanor.
Across the country, African Americans tuned in, aware of the moment’s significance. The lead singer performing for the president, and for national airwaves, was one of the leading musical talents of the era: a Black man from Waco named Jules Bledsoe. And “Ode to America” wasn’t just his big solo. He wrote it.
At its peak, Bledsoe’s career was a dizzying series of triumphs across continents and disciplines. He was the first singer to perform “Ol’ Man River” on Broadway and on film, and his dignified delivery and astonishing voice—deep as the ocean but flawlessly clear and direct—helped make the tune an American standard. (Bledsoe told Virginia’s Daily Press that he lost count after singing “Ol’ Man River” 18,000 times.) He later took the lead role in a 1932 opera, Tom Tom, with words and music written by another Black composer, Shirley Graham. (Tom Tom debuted in a baseball stadium to accommodate the crowds, but has not been performed since. It featured an entirely symbolic story depicting centuries of Black history in Africa and America; newspaper reports indicated that the African scenes used only singers and percussion, with the full orchestra appearing later.) Bledsoe set Countee Cullen’s poem “Pagan Prayer” to music and performed it to widespread acclaim. He starred in Verdi’s Aida in London and Chicago. He toured the United States and Europe, singing and acting in recital programs that combined classical art songs, spiritual arrangements, and his own originals. Many of his accompanists and musical colleagues were white, but he also toured with pianist Carl Rossini Diton, the first Black pianist to do a cross-country tour. Bledsoe was successful enough to hire copyists to write out sheet music parts, to demand his payments in advance, and even to open his own mountain resort in the Catskills.
But after he died at age 44 from a cerebral hemorrhage, two years after singing “Ode to America” for the Roosevelts, his music was boxed up and forgotten. When Horace Maxile joined Baylor University’s music theory faculty, a colleague politely suggested a visit to the Jules Bledsoe archive on campus, in the Carroll Library’s Texas Collection. Maxile, knowing Bledsoe only as a singer and unaware of the archive’s considerable size—it includes twenty boxes of music, letters, and other materials—procrastinated. When he finally went to see it, he was shocked.
“I see a few boxes, and I’m like: boxes? Original compositions?,” he recalls. “Bledsoe is not a composer that is included even in reference works that talk about Black composers. You see a libretto for an opera on the back of a sheet, and you’re like, ‘An opera? What?’ You’re thinking about Bledsoe breaking down barriers in the opera halls and concert halls. Not only was he performing the standard repertoire expected of an American baritone at the time, he was performing his own music. Not only are there spirituals and folk songs, there are art songs, songs with poignant texts. None of this stuff is recorded. We have, I won’t call it a mountain, but a significant hill of unperformed music by an American composer. This was an amazing person.”
Since almost none of Bledsoe’s compositions were published and he recorded only rarely, most documentation of his career is in the form of concert programs. In May 1937, for example, Bledsoe was featured with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, then and now one of the world’s best. After a night of Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, and Mahler, Bledsoe’s own arrangements of Negro spirituals provided the grand finale.
The Baylor archive includes documentation for three Waco concerts, in 1916, 1925, and 1935. In 1916, Bledsoe was a piano student at Bishop College, a historically Black university in Marshall, and demonstrated an unusually diverse repertoire: a showpiece by Franz Liszt appeared alongside works by Frenchwoman Cécile Chaminade and the mixed-race African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Bledsoe’s later Waco concerts took place at his childhood church, New Hope Baptist Church, which is still open. On one 1935 night, Bledsoe and Carl Diton offered a four-part program. The first two featured Handel, Mozart, Brahms, and other classical composers; the third set was almost entirely Bledsoe originals, including songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics. For the finale, the duo presented a bouquet of traditional favorites, including a Gospel hymn, with the irresistible title “Songs My Grandmother Used to Sing.”
In the early 1940s, Bledsoe moved to Los Angeles to attempt a career in Hollywood. He made one credited on-screen appearance, in the 1942 drama Drums of the Congo, and may have appeared in other movies too. It’s hard to tell because films of that era did not list every actor or extra in the credits—especially if they were Black.
For example, some online biographies say that Bledsoe appeared in Santa Fe Trail, an all-star blockbuster that raked in a million dollars. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland played the romantic leads. Triple Oscar winner Max Steiner wrote the score. Two years after Santa Fe Trail’s 1940 release, director Michael Curtiz made Casablanca; forty years later, the young heartthrob who played Flynn’s romantic rival was elected president of the United States.
Since Santa Fe Trail is available on Amazon Prime, I decided to try to find Jules Bledsoe. Unfortunately, the movie is unwatchable pro-Confederacy propaganda. In its plot, abolitionists are filthy, rag-wearing, sneering villains who commit cold-blooded murder, and the Black slaves they rescue not only do not want freedom but do not understand freedom as a concept. In Santa Fe Trail’s world, abolitionists sought to divide the union and noble Southerners fought to preserve it. In one early scene, Jefferson Davis tells the heroes to fight for “the most noble of causes: the defense of the rights of man.” When Flynn meets de Havilland, he says that abolitionism is wrong because “the South can settle her own problem.”
At the 56-minute mark, the film depicts a large group of slaves singing together in a barn, mostly in the background. Unwilling to watch further, I assumed that Bledsoe must have been one of those singers and I turned off the television. We will likely never know for sure whether or where he appears, because not one Black performer in Santa Fe Trail is named in the credits. According to IMDb, fewer than ten have been identified.
There is much we do not know about Jules Bledsoe. We don’t know why he chose music in the first place, giving up a place at Columbia University’s medical school. We don’t know what happened to his opera, titled Bondage, which Maxile says exists in partially orchestrated “chunks” in libraries in Waco and possibly New York. We’re not sure what Bondage was about. We also do not know much about a fascinating sideline to his career, in which he bought a farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains and converted it into a summer outdoor resort for Black vacationers. A local history book says only that Bledsoe owned the property from 1923 until his death. But when did he open it as a resort? How involved was he in operations? How popular was it?
The biggest unknown, however, is his inner life: how he felt about his successes and the barriers in his way, how his Waco upbringing influenced his art, whether he was hurt by his misuse in Hollywood. Bledsoe left letters but no diary. His handwriting was abominable, and his newspaper interviews are unilluminating.
“There are articles in a couple of newspapers where he was interviewed, making broad statements about this and that,” Maxile explains. “They’re asking him particular questions, probably trying to get him to say a particular thing.” In one contentious interview, Bledsoe complained that Black pianists were not good enough to accompany him. In another, he suggested that Black life in the United States, for all its hardship, would still be preferable to moving to Europe. Musicians of later generations, like Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke, disagreed.
“The personal stuff, the anecdotal stuff, you really have to dig deep to find it,” Maxile adds. “We do have a number of his letters, but again, that hand is something else.” When he muses about hiring a handwriting expert, he’s only half joking.
What we have are a handful of recordings—“Ol’ Man River,” a classic Viennese operetta aria, several spirituals, and folk songs—and the musical compositions and arrangements Bledsoe left behind. At Baylor, Maxile is working his way through the boxes of Bledsoe material, expecting more discoveries, wondering if the composer could’ve penned a second opera. He hopes to stage a live concert of Bledsoe’s compositions at Baylor in 2022; the concert was supposed to take place last year, but was delayed because of the pandemic (as was a new production of Shirley Graham’s opera Tom Tom).
Maxile’s hope, as he continues to research Bledsoe’s legacy, is to illustrate a forgotten chapter in the history of African American artistry. In his words, “I want to broaden the perspective of what Black artistic excellence was and could be.”