So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Song in His Heart. John Jay Daly

A Song in His Heart was written in 1951 before modern sensibilities on race. So there are many references to "coloreds" and Negroes. Amazingly it is the only book written about the famous composer and African-American minstrel James A. Bland. The writing is at the young adult biography level and the book is illustrated predominantly with black and white drawings. There must have been a body of research on which the book is based, but without footnotes or a bibliography it is lost to the reader seeking more information.

Reproduced at the end of the book is the sheet music for eight of Bland's better known songs:

*Carry Me Back to Old Virginny
*You Could Have Been True
*In the Evening by the Moonlight
*Dancing on de Kitchen Floor
*Gabriel's Band
*Oh! Lucinda
*Oh, Dem Golden Slippers
*The Old Fashioned Cottage

There is some controversy over who invented the 5-string banjo. Mr. Daly is one of those who attributes it to James Bland. Regardless of who is responsible for the 5-string, Bland was a composer second only to Steven Foster, and the most famous African-American performer of his day.

The Introduction was written by Harry F. Byrd Sr. Senator and Governor of Virginia. It is interesting that he was one of the most vocal proponents of racial segregation of his day.

The book glosses over the racial problems and idealizes the age of minstrelsy. There is one reference on page 50 to the prejudice Bland must have faced his whole life. It is when John Ford, the owner of Ford's Theater in Washington wants his star performer George Primrose to listen to Bland perform. Primrose doesn't want to do it because "It would just be a wasting his time and mine." He goes on to tell Ford:
"Here we are all blacked up with burnt cork to look like Negroes, but we can't have a real colored man in our show. John, these people have music in their soul. They've given us the Negro spirituals, which have become part of this country's music. In spite of this, we're not far enough advanced in our thinking to admit this by placing him in our show."

The author sums up his point of view on black minstrelsy with the following statement on page 60:

"For many years Negro minstrels were not permitted in the professional theater. The end men, Mr. Bones and Mr. Sambo, as well as the fellow members of the troupe, were white men, their faces blackened with burnt cork. But the innate sense of humor, the love of laughter, and the rhythm of the Negro people had set the pattern for the minstrel show itself, which for almost fifty years was the most popular form of entertainment in America. When Negroes were eventually admitted to the professional stage, they literally took over the entire minstrel convention. Like their white imitators, they used burnt cork and thickened lips in an attempt to imitate their plantation forefathers."

It is sad that such a talented man's life is only represented by such an outdated and simplistic biography. We may never know the true story of James Bland, but we will always have his music.


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