by Amanda Neel, Graduate Assistant
The shelves here at the Texas Collection hold many collections about the lives and experiences of African American Texans. One of these collections, the Jules Bledsoe Papers, concerns the life and musical career of Jules Bledsoe. Julian (Jules) Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas on December 18, 1898 and went on to travel the world for his career as a baritone singer. His papers include his library of sheet music, recordings of performances, personal correspondence, programs, and much more.
Jules served in the military during World War I and moved to New York City after the end of the war. While in New York, he received an Honorable Discharge. However, his stint in New York only lasted a short while. Jules signed a performance contract with the Young Men’s Christian Association, Colored Branch in Penniman, Virginia. While in Virginia, Jules sat for photographs in dress uniform for, in his own words, “40 years from now I might want to point back to when I was a soldier in the World War and you know nothing is better evidence than a picture.” Though he lived and performed in Virginia, he set his sights on returning to New York City.
Jules returned to New York by 1920 and saw his career take off by 1925. He performed in places like the Manhattan Opera House and critics hailed him as one of the greatest baritones of the day. His letters home mention his work with great New York composers. He even performed his own compositions during recitals, including his most well-known piece, “Old Man River.” Though based in New York City and traveling the world, Jules never forgot about home. He returned to Waco many times throughout his career and performed multiple times at the New Hope Baptist Church.
For his career, Jules learned to sing in English, French, German, Italian, Yiddish, and a little bit of Spanish. He refused to limit his success to the United States, and his proficiency in multiple languages propelled his career forward. From 1937 to 1938 Jules traveled across Europe, performing in recitals and in operas, including “Aida,” a well-loved piece of operatic canon. Photographs from his performances in Paris and the Netherlands, as well as programs from his stops in Germany, are held in his collection at the Texas Collection.
During World War II, Jules performed across the United States and parts of Europe in a series of patriotic concerts that promoted War relief. On Armistice day, he performed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium in celebration.
Jules’ success enabled him to purchase an estate in the Catskill Mountains of Roxbury, New York. Named Jessie’s Manna Farm, Jules operated the estate as a resort for African Americans and advertised it as the ideal get-away for those who loved the outdoors. He installed pools and tennis courts for guest entertainment. The farm promised an escape from city life.
Jules died in Los Angeles, California on 14 July 1943 and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Waco, TX. The people of Waco mourned his death, and his papers contain an obituary from New Hope Baptist Church. Aged just forty-five, Jules’ life seems tragically short, but a look through his papers reveal he accomplished a great deal during his life.
For more images from the Jules Bledsoe papers, check out our Flickr album!