Episode 115. Jules Bledsoe

Episode 115. Jules Bledsoe

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That’s Freddy in the background!

This week I present an important African American artist who has been nearly forgotten by history: the bass-baritone Jules Bledsoe (1897-1943). He is most remembered for creating the role of Joe in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat, but he was equally celebrated in his time for his memorable concerts, which took place both here and in Europe, and for his operatic portrayals, most significantly, the title role in Louis Gruenberg’s opera The Emperor Jones, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, which he portrayed both in the United States and in Europe. When this opera premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1933, the legendary baritone Lawrence Tibbett created the title role (in blackface). Barred from singing at the Met because of his race, Bledsoe took his portrayal of Brutus Jones on the road, performing it in a triumphant European tour, but also subsequently in New York in 1934 under the aegis of the short-lived Aeolian Opera Company, which was intended to provide performing opportunities for Black opera singers, but which folded almost immediately. Jules Bledsoe was also a composer who wrote many songs and arrangements of spirituals, as well as a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin entitled Bondage, as well as his own operatic setting of O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, which may or may not have been performed at the time. Even less well-known and acknowledged is that Jules Bledsoe was a gay man in a relationship with a Dutch white man named Freddy Huygens who at the time of Bledsoe’s premature death was referred to as either his “manager” or his “closest friend.” I present examples of all the extant recorded material I could find by Jules Bledsoe, alongside recorded examples of work by his collaborators Abbie Mitchell, Irene Dunne, Anne Roselle, Marie Powers, Todd Duncan and excerpts from the work of composers W. Franke Harling, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Louis Gruenberg performed by Jeanette MacDonald, Valaida Snow, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Lawrence Tibbett. Billie Holiday even puts in a special appearance! The episode also includes tributes to the recently departed British soprano Joan Carlyle and the US-American bass-baritone Jake Gardner.

RECORDINGS HEARD IN THIS EPISODE

Michael Tippett: Sweet was the peace (The Midsummer Marriage). Joan Carlyle, Colin Davis, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden [1971]

Wilhelm Grosz, Jean Toomer [German translation by Josef Luitpold Stern]: Lied der Baumwollpacker (Afrika-Songs). Jake Gardner, Robert Ziegler, Matrix Ensemble [1997]

Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II: Ol’ Man River (Show Boat). Jules Bledsoe [from soundtrack to 1929 film version of Show Boat]

Alberta Nichols, Mann Holiner: Your Mother’s Son-in-Law. Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra [1933]

Franz Schubert, Friedrich Rückert: Du bist die Ruh’, D. 776. Jules Bledsoe, unknown orchestra and conductor [1931]

Leo Robin, Richard A. Whiting, W. Franke Harling: Beyond the Blue Horizon. Jeanette MacDonald, Robert Russell Bennett, RCA Victor Orchestra [1950]

W. Franke Harling, Sam Coslow: Sing, You Sinners (Honey). Valaida Snow [1935]

Traditional Spiritual: Poor Mourner. Jules Bledsoe [unknown recording date]

Traditional Spiritual: Gonna Shout All Over God’s Heaven. Jules Bledsoe [unknown recording date]

Turner Layton, Henry Creamer: Dear Old Southland [adapted from Deep River]. Jules Bledsoe [Pathé Short 1932]

Traditional Spiritual: Deep River. Jules Bledsoe [unknown recording date]

Jerome Kern, Herbert Reynolds: They Didn’t Believe Me (The Girl from Utah). Irene Dunne, Victor Young and His Orchestra [1941]

Jules Bledsoe: Does I Love You? Jules Bledsoe, unknown conductor and orchestra [1931]

I’m pretty sure this is Jules and Freddy together.

Franz Lehár, André Mauprey, Jean Marietti: Je t’ai donné mon cœur [Dein ist mein ganzes Herz] (Le pays de sourire [Das Land des Lächelns]). Jules Bledsoe, Armand Bernard, Orchestre Ultraphone [1931]

Ange Flégier, Alfred de Vigny: Le cor. Jules Bledsoe, Armand Bernard, Orchestre Ultraphone [1931]

Shirley Graham Du Bois: Excerpt from Tom-Tom. Markel Reed, Kyle Walker [2020]

Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Ghislanzoni: O patria mia (Aida). Anne Roselle [1928]

Johannes Brahms, Felix Schumann: Meine Liebe ist grün, Op. 63/8. Marie Powers, Frank La Forge [1951]

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Du Bose Heyward: Summertime (Porgy and Bess). Abbie Mitchell, Frank Black, NBC Symphony Orchestra [radio broadcast 1935]

Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson: Lost in the Stars (Lost in the Stars). Todd Duncan, Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Maurice Levine [1949]

Adelio Zagonara

Louis Gruenberg, Kathleen de Jaffa, unknown Italian translator: Excerpt from The Emperor Jones. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Adelio Zagonara, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma [live Rome 23 December 1951]

Lawrence Tibbett and Louis Gruenberg

Louis Gruenberg, Kathleen de Jaffa: Standin’ in the Need of Prayer (The Emperor Jones). Lawrence Tibbett, Orchestra conducted by Wilfred Pelletier [1933]

Traditional Spiritual: He Rose from the Dead. Jules Bledsoe [unknown recording date]

Traditional Spiritual: Wake Up, Jacob. Jules Bledsoe [unknown recording date]

Traditional: Water Boy. Jules Bledsoe, unknown pianist [1931]

Traditional Spiritual: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Jules Bledsoe, unknown pianist [1931]

Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II: Ol’ Man River (Show Boat). Jules Bledsoe [1931]

Jules Bledsoe and Eleanor Roosevelt
As Tonio in Pagliacci, perhaps? Or just dressed as a creepy clown…
As Amonasro

2 thoughts on “Episode 115. Jules Bledsoe”

  1. Thank you for this very important portrayal of Jule Bledsoe’s career and those with whom he worked. He deserves much more attention than he has received. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play your presentation as I wanted to–I was trying to transcribe your comments, but it was not possible to do so. Would it be possible to obtain a copy for my files?

    I am the biographer of Harry T. Burleigh, who is also tangentially a part of this story: Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance, 2016, University of Illinois Press. There are several parts of this story I’d like to explore further.

    1. Dear Dr. Snyder: Thank you so much for taking the time to write! I wish that I could provide you with a transcription of the episode, but alas, I didn’t have a script and I don’t have a transcription service set up. I will, however, be happy to send you pdfs of the two articles that I used in the preparation of this episode. I’m very interested in reading your biography of Harry Burleigh! Right now I have just begun reading Kira Thurman’s new book, Singing Like Germans, which is extraordinary in every way. But the Burleigh bio is moving to the top of my reading list! Please look for an email from me with the two articles that I used in this episode. All best, Daniel

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