The goal of the Lions of Virginia Bland Music Scholarship Foundation, Inc. (Bland Foundation) is to promote cultural and educational opportunities for musically talented young people in Virginia (primarily of high school age). This goal is achieved through progressive music competitions beginning in February at the local Lions club level, and culminating in a state competition in which twelve (12) finalists (2 per district) from the three (3) Lions districts in Virginia compete during the State Convention in May. The Bland Foundation oversees these competitions, and also provides music scholarships to the top twelve finalists. The scholarships must be used for college tuition, music lessons, summer music programs or other music education endeavors. This program has been providing scholarships to gifted music students, both vocal and instrumental, since 1948. As tuition and lessons are extremely expensive, the Bland Foundation provides needed assistance to these talented, hard-working music students and their families. Many of the scholarship winners in the program, upon graduation from high school, have been accepted into the top music schools, conservatories and colleges in the United States. Finalists from the 2017-2018 state contests have enrolled in the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the John Hopkins University, the Juilliard School of Music, Oberlin School of Music, Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Columbia University, Manhattan School of Music, Carnegie Mellon Musical Theater Program, Yale University and the Earl V. Moore School of Music at the University of Michigan and Princeton.
The purpose of the Lions of Virginia Music Scholarship Foundation, Inc. is to provide a living memorial to James A. Bland, an African-American who was a popular composer in the late 1800's. In 1940, the Lions of Virginia were instrumental in having Bland's composition, Carry Me Back To Old Virginia, adopted as the official state song. In 1948 they established the Bland competition to honor this prolific writer of America. Carry Me Back To Old Virginia is now the state song emeritus, but the Lions of Virginia still honor James Allen Bland and his place in American musical history through this successful, well-established program for encouraging and supporting musically gifted youth in Virginia.
James A. "Jimmy" Bland, the greatest Black writer of American Folk Song composed over seven hundred songs, a number of which were outright contributions to Americana.
He was born October 12, 1854, at Flushing, Long Island, N.Y., a free American, one of eight children. His family was from Charleston, South Carolina. His father, Allan Bland, an alumnus of Wilberforce University, was one of the first College Trained Blacks. He attended night classes and received his law degree from Howard University, and was the first Black man to be appointed examiner in the United States Patent Office.
Jimmy Bland, as a boy 12 years old and living in Philadelphia, saw an old black man playing a Banjo and singing Black Spirituals. Jimmy was so elated over this that he was determined to have his own Banjo. So he built a crude imitation with old bailing wire for strings, but a larger kid picked a fight with him and tore it up. His father bought Jimmy an eight-dollar Banjo. Soon thereafter the family moved to Washington D.C.. Having taught himself to play exceptionally well, Jimmy earned spending money by playing and singing in the streets. By the time he was fourteen he had become professional and was entertaining in hotels, restaurants and for private parties. At fifteen, he started composing some short pieces of his own, but did not record any of them.
He finished high school in Washington and strummed and sang his way partly through Howard University. At seventeen, he tried to put on a musical show at Howard and was banned from the University. While at Howard University, he met a girl, Mannie Friend, who was destined to help shape his future life. Then he met Professor White, an old black man with snow white hair, who recognized Bland's God Given musical talents and began teaching him how to write songs and music. One night while playing and singing in Lafayette Park to his girl friend Mannie, Mr. John Ford, owner of the Ford Theater, saw him and offered to introduce Jimmy to George Primrose, one of the great minstrel men of the time.
The introduction to Primrose was delayed by a trip to Mannie's birthplace in Tidewater, Virginia, which was on Judge White's plantation on the James River, between Charles City and Williamsburg. Here, while James Bland and Mannie Friend were sitting on the bank of the James River, Jimmy composed "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny." Mannie wrote the words down for him as he played and sang it. On returning to Washington, Mr. John Ford introduced Jimmy Bland to George Primrose of Primrose and West. With his one song "Carry Me Back To Ole Virginny," Jimmy, now age 19 made a big hit with Primrose and Billy West and within a week they opened their new show in Baltimore.
Mr. Tom Harvey, owner of the then famous Harvey's Restaurant in Washington, D.C., had Jimmy play and sing his composition "In The Evening By The Moonlight" for the Canvas Back Club, now the Gridiron Club, that met at his restaurant. President Cleveland and General Robert E. Lee were both member and present for the affair. Bland, realizing the limitations of the four-stringed Banjo, added a fifth string to the instrument and it became known as the Bland Banjo.
In his middle twenties, Jimmy worked the minstrel shows and eventually joined Colonel Jack Harvey's minstrel troupe and toured the United States. In 1881, Bland's salary was $10,000.00 a year; the highest ever paid a minstrel man. Then Bland and Harvey's minstrel went to Europe and became a sensation overnight. Jimmy gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace before Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.
When Harvey's show came back to the States, Bland stayed in London. During the twenty years he lived abroad, he toured the continent earning $12,000.00 a year. Up to this time, only three American composers had made a dent in the German music conscience, John Philip Sousa, James A. Bland and Stephen Foster. In 1901, he returned from Europe, penniless and broke, and went back to Washington, D.C.
While abroad he had lived high and dressed well, probably why he and his money soon parted company. Aided by friends, he tried to compose but the old spirit was gone. Eventually, he did compose and write lyric for a musical production called "The Sporting Girl" which had 18 songs in it. After having sold the work for only $250.00, he gave up and returned to Philadelphia, broke and in very poor health.
Bland died of tuberculosis on May 6,1911. He was buried in Merion Cemetery near Philadelphia, with not even a death notice in the newspaper to mark his passing. The once handsome, happy-go-lucky, good natured, slight of build black man, with wavy hair, light complexion, and who was often called, "The Worlds Greatest Minstrel Man", passed into oblivion. Bland's body remained obscure in the little Merion Cemetery covered with weeds until 1939, when the Lions of Virginia aided by Dr. J. Francis Cooke, editor of Etude Magazine, found his unmarked grave.