“Encyclopedists and historians of the American Stage have slighted the old Negro minstrels while making much of the burnt cork artists who imitated them. But Negroes were the originators of this form of entertainment, and companies of them continued to perform as long as the vogue lasted.” -- Father of the Blues, W. C. Handy, NY, 1941.
White minstrelsy, in which burnt cork was applied to the face and hands of the white performers, began in the eighteen forties while the first black minstrels only began to perform commercially during the Civil War. The first successful black minstrels were the Georgia Minstrel Troupe, ex-slaves who toured the Northwest in 1865. Soon there were numerous imitators using the same name, and one Negro managed troupe of that name toured Europe.
Traditional songs of American folk music travel in a mysterious stream of evolution from the past to the present. Live entertainment, in the form of minstrelsy, followed the steamboat routes from New Orleans to Canada and in later years via circus, medicine show, and vaudeville. Traveling blackface minstrel shows were still advertised in American and Canadian newspapers throughout the nineteen thirties.
Let’s jump into the stream when James A. Bland’s Dem Golden Slippers was “in the mouth of every man, woman and child in America,” in the words of Ike Simond, Banjo Comique and a genuine Negro minstrel.* Bland does not get much mention beyond a sentence or two in histories of minstrelsy although he wrote over 700 songs in his time, one of which became the state song of Virginia...
I can’t recall where I first heard the unforgettable melody of Oh, Dem Golden Slippers; it may have been in a forties western, at a kids matinee, with a saloon man pumping a player piano to the raucous whoops of cowboys and dance-hall women; or it may have caught my ear wafting from a Bugs Bunny Show television cartoon or a rerun of an old Betty Boop short. It might have been in a Tex Avery parody of The Shooting of Dan McGrew. A snatch of the song appears in the background of Hank Snow’s great folk album Tales of the Yukon (songs of Robert W. Service) produced by Chet Atkins in Nashville. Another of Bland's songs, Come Along Sister Mary, would seem to have passed into the modern age as Get Along Home Cindy, Cindy, which Ricky Nelson sang in the movie Rio Bravo. Johnny Cash sang it -- as did the Kingston Trio.
Dem Golden Slippers (theme song of Philadelphia’s annual Mummer’s Parade) was written by James A. Bland, “the Negro Steven Foster,” who had never been a slave. Paul Bailey gave Bland’s (“Long Island’s great minstrel”) biography in a Historic Long Island column dated 30 Mar 1951, found in the Sayville Courier.
Bland was born at Flushing October 22nd 1854, but as a youth went with his family to Washington, D.C. where his father, a graduate of Wilberforce University who later studied law at Howard University, was an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office. James also attended Howard, but left there to become a page in the House of Representatives.
While so employed, the future minstrel organized a glee club whose repertoire consisted almost entirely of his own compositions. Finally joining a minstrel troupe, he toured America as an endman and between appearances wrote numerous ballads for himself and others in the company. Many of these songs became hits of their day and Bland himself, having won fame, organized his own company which eventually toured Europe. He was a national favorite in England and Scotland during the 1880’s and won a fortune as well as fame. Among his seven hundred compositions were, besides Carry Me Back to Old Virginia, the popular ballads Dem Golden Slippers, In the Morning by the Bright Light and others equally popular, some of which were appropriated by his fellow entertainers and his authorship ignored.
Bland even gave a command performance for Queen Victoria, but although a great minstrel he was a poor businessman and in 1901, back in Washington, he was found destitute by a boyhood friend and given a home. Later he moved to Philadelphia to live with a sister and there on the fifth day of May, 1911, unknown to all but a very few intimates as the once great minstrel, he died. He was buried in the little Negro Cemetery of Merion, near his sister’s home, and there his story might well have ended and his very identity have been forgotten except for something that happened 29 years after his death and many miles from where it occurred.
In 1940 Carry Me Back to Old Virginia was officially adopted as the State Song of that commonwealth, whereupon members of the Virginia Legislature began asking one another just who was James A. Bland, the man who had written it. Newspapers took up the inquiry as did members of the Lions in that State. As a result Governor Tuck appointed a commission to find out. The investigation led them to Washington, then to Philadelphia and finally to the Merion cemetery where Bland’s grave, by then an unmarked spot covered with poison ivy, was located by a surviving relative of the songwriter.
Thereupon a suitable monument, duly engraved, was provided by the State of Virginia. At its dedication a delegation of officials and other citizens of that State, led by Governor Tuck himself, attended the ceremonies. The latter delivered an eloquent tribute during which he said: “James Bland was not a Virginian. He was born on Long Island.” In 1944 Charles Hayward, Department of Music at Queens College in Flushing, first told the story of that community’s negro native son in a pamphlet entitled “James A. Bland, Prince of the Colored Songwriters.” It was published by the Flushing Historical Society whose president, August Kupka, first acquainted us with this story of Long Island’s greatest minstrel who gave Virginia its State Song.
“During his life he was star of Callander’s English minstrel company, and appeared on the London stage for more than twenty years. He was a favorite of King Edward VII. When he died he left no will or account of his 57 years of work.”
I browsed numerous old digital newspaper archives searching for a portrait with no luck. A short Wikipedia article led me to a collection of Bland’s sheet music with illustrations which included what looks like a portrait of the songwriter. Some particularly ugly caricatures (which resemble Crockett Almanac illustrations) were used for more than one of his titles but the portrait shows a well-dressed and dignified black man surrounded by plantation vignettes. Although the songs were written and sung in what passed for Negro dialect Bland probably spoke English as perfectly as any white person. You can listen to a sampler of authentic black voices from the Archeophone recording Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922 HERE (scroll to the bottom). Black boxer Jack Johnson, who could read and write, sings (or chants) on track 27 My Own Story of the Big Fight Part I (1911) in perfect English. Most cartoons and writings about Johnson from the period have the misleading imaginary Negro dialect (‘dem,’ ‘dose,’ and ‘gwine’) of the minstrel songs. Another sampler of songs Monarchs of Minstrelsy: Historic Recordings by the Stars of the Minstrel Stage allows a listen to the minstrel songs that were recorded during the teens and twenties HERE (scroll to the bottom).
*Old Slack’s Reminiscence and Pocket History of the Colored Profession from 1865-1891. By Ike Simond, Banjo Comique. Now Ready and For Sale at 436 Dearborn Street, Chicago, 25 cents. Popular Press reprint from Bowling Green University, 1973.
*Love and Theft, Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, by Eric Lott, Oxford University Press 1993.
*Love and Theft, by Bob Dylan, Columbia recording, released 11 Sept 2001.
*The Birth of the Banjo, Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy, by Bob Carlin, McFarland and Company 2007.
*The Devil’s Own Work, the Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, by Barnet Schecter, Walker and Company 2005.
*Tambo and Bones a History of the American Minstrel Stage, by Carl Wittke, Duke University Press 1930.
*Gentlemen Be Seated a Parade of the Old Time Minstrels, by Dailey Paskman and Sigmund Spaeth, Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., 1928.
*All sheet music images are available HERE.