James Bland: The Most Famous Composer You Never Knew

A headline from The Pittsburgh Courier (a Black newspaper) in 1939. The article is a biography of James Bland and is a response to the possible adoption of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” as Virginia’s state song. Full page available here

TW: Racist descriptions of Black people

If you’re American, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of Stephen Foster. Even if you couldn’t write a dissertation on him, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard the name, or sung one of his famous songs, like “Oh Susanna”. But have you heard of James Bland? Like Foster, Bland made his fame as a minstrel composer and was major player in the industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, yet Bland is far less known today. The difference? James Bland was Black.

Bland was descended from a long line of free Black people (his father was educated at Oberlin College) and was born in 1854 in Flushing, New York. He was educated at Howard University. He was an extremely successful entertainer, having been part of many famous troupes, including as Sprague’s Original Georgia Minstrels and Callender’s Georgia Minstrels. And of course, he was also extremely successful as a composer. Though well known among those in the industry, Bland did not get the same recognition by the general public. He wrote over 700 songs, but only around 50 were published under his name. Some were even published under Foster’s, as Tom Fletcher, a contemporary of Bland, observed in his book 100 Years of the Negro Show Business:

“Both [Foster and Bland] flourished at the same time, during the early days of show business, but Foster’s friends and heirs kept his name before the public, a privilege Bland did not enjoy. The ideas of the two men on songs were very similar too, and very often a song written by Bland would be credited to Foster with whose name the general public was much more familiar.” (83)

Sheet music for “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” published in 1878

In fact, when “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was proposed as the state song of Virginia in the late 1930s, many believed the song was written by Foster, and, according to the Pittsburgh Courier, when it was discovered to have been written by Bland, a Black composer, the proposition was almost discarded. It wasn’t, however, and Bland’s song was the state song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997, when it was removed due to its racist lyrics which sentimentalize slavery and the Old South.

A recording of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” from 1916


James Bland in many ways encapsulates the tension inherent in bringing to light the accomplishments and successes of Black minstrel performers and composers in general. Many of Bland’s most famous works, like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, have lyrics that romanticize slavery. Black minstrels sometimes both literally and figuratively had to “black up”, or in other words, cater to the white imagination of what Blackness really was. But it’s important to note that Bland also composed antislavery songs like “De Slavery Chains Am Broke At Last”, and had his own voice and agency – he was not merely an imitation Stephen Foster. And also, minstrelsy was one of the earliest opportunities for Black entertainers, performers, and composers to start their careers, to make make money, and to make their voices heard. What’s more, minstrelsy is far from gone in American popular culture. Which begs the question:

So long as we remember Stephen Foster, shouldn’t we remember James Bland too?



Bland, James A. Carry me back to old Virginny. John F. Perry & Co., Boston, monographic, 1878. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1878.x0004/.

Bland, James A, Orpheus Quartet, James A Bland, Josef Pasternack, Lambert Murphy, Harry Macdonough, William F Hooley, and Reinald Werrenrath. Carry me back to old Virginny. 1916. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-20049/.

Fletcher, Tom. 100 Years in the Negro Show Business. Da Capo Press. New York 1984.

Hullfish, William R. “James A. Bland: Pioneer Black Songwriter.” Black Music Research Journal 7 (1987): 1–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/779446.





The Latin American Blues

What does the salsa have in common with the blues? Well according to Tito Puente, it too is just a broad categorization of a minority’s music:

The word salsa combines all kinds of music into one, like the mambo, the cha-cha, the merengue, all music with Caribbean origins. When they call it salsa, you don’t actually define what rhythm is. That’s why I don’t particularly care for the word. However, sometimes they call me the “King of Salsa,” so I’ll go along with it, I won’t dispute it, as long as they don’t call me the “Queen of Salsa.”1

This quote reminded me of the discussions we’ve had about the idea of “the blues,” and how throughout the term’s history it has been a broad and vague way of categorizing African American music. Likewise, Puente writes that the term “salsa” refers to an amalgamation of many musics of Caribbean origin, and that it obfuscates the different styles’ unique rhythmic identities. This leads to an at best vague conception of what salsa is among those who are not intimately familiar with it, and a lack of understanding and appreciation for the differences it encompasses — including differences in rhythm, which is an integral part and differentiator of these styles of music.

If this generalization and lack of understanding of minority cultures leads to anything, it’s stereotypes. The other parallel I saw in this quote was that to the double-sided coin of black-face minstrelsy. Puente writes that while he doesn’t “particularly care for the word [salsa],” he’ll “go along” with being called the “King of Salsa.” While against the vague misrepresentation of Caribbean music, he doesn’t complain that it is by this misrepresentation that he is risen up, much like it was through the stereotypes perpetuated by black-face minstrelsy that many African American performers got their start.

However, this compliance with stereotypes, while having benefits, also reinforces them. Louie Pérez writes about this, and how it serves as a motivator for him:

This is music made by Mexican-Americans, but if you looked that up in the dictionary, I don’t think you’d find our picture. We’re not the kind of music people would expect, which excites me. It’s nice to show that as Latinos, we can do a lot of things.2

Pérez’s showing that Latinos can “do a lot of things” sounds similar to what African American black-face performers encountered when they pushed the boundaries of what they could perform. As we discussed, their beginning to perform European art songs, for example, illustrates their expansion into an art form that not only wouldn’t have their picture in the dictionary, but would likely picture a decidedly European performer to represent a music that is decidedly European, sometimes to a racist extent.

Thus salsa might be called the Latin American blues, indicative of a broad, uninformed amalgamation of musics that are not fully understood or appreciated, indicative of the misrepresentation and pigeonholing that this categorization can cause, and indicative of the unfortunate commonalities between the oppression of different minorities in America.

1 “Tito Puente: Quote on Salsa Music.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019. http://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1328036.

2 “Louie Pérez (Los Lobos): Quote on Not Fitting a Stereotype.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019. http://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1508248.

“Tito Puente (Para Los Rumberos).” YouTube video, 5:01, posted by chulonga3, Jan 2, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTKeVliVL24.

“Us” and “Them”: The Mentality of Minstrelsy

In my search for primary sources, I came across three commentaries on minstrelsy that held very different views of black performers. Despite their differences, though, they all gave clear examples of an “us” and “them” mentality—a white “us” viewing a black “them” as “other”—betraying a deep racism even when praising black performers or not mentioning them at all.

From the Freeman1

The most overtly racist commentary I came across was in the newspaper the Freeman, in which the author writes that the average African American comedian is a “perfect stranger” to originality, instead trying to “imitate the higher class of white comedians,” an attempt which “leave[s] you in disgust.”1 Such a broad denial of African American talent is an obvious example of racist “us” and “them” thinking, in which the “us” is clearly much better than the “them.”


In contrast, the Cleveland Gazette shares a view that is very complimentary of black performers:

From the Cleveland Gazette2

Even this view, though, shows a blatant “us” and “them” mentality. Mr. Frohman’s authority is given by his having “many years of experience with colored people.” This implies that black performers are different enough from white performers that one must have extensive experience with them in order to hold such a view. This seems almost dehumanizing to me, as one would speak in the same way of having experience with a certain type of animal.

Cover of How to Put On a Minstrel Show3

Lastly, I was interested by the extent to which black performers were left unmentioned in How to Put On a Minstrel Show by Harold Rossiter. As black performers were a realistically viable option in minstrel shows, one would expect at least a mention of them in such a guide—which includes mentions of female performers—but it fails to do so. The word “negro,” for example, only appears three times: twice in advice against using too much negro dialect, and once in advice against choosing a song that would be “unusual for a negro minstrel to sing.” “Negro minstrel” seems to refer only to the race of the character, and not the race of the performer, as this comment leads into a discussion of the particular types of music appropriate for minstrel shows, independant of performer.3 This complete dismissal of black performers as possibilities shows a mentality that is so consumed by the “us” that the “them” does not even exist as an option—that they’re simply unmentioned speaks volumes.

On the surface, these three sources have very different views of black minstrel performers. All three, though, prove to be ultimately based in the same mentality that black performers are a “them” distinctly “other” from a white “us.” This mentality existing underneath and across such difference shows how widespread and ingrained this mentality was during the height of minstrelsy.

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs
http://www.blackpast.org/files/ blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?