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Bland Contest Returns To Black History Month

The South Boston Lions Club’s annual Bland Memorial Music Contest will be conducted at 7 p.m. in the Chastain Theater at The Prizery on Feb. 5.

James Bland, whom the competition memorializes, was an African-American.  A turn-of-the-20th-century singer, musician, and composer, Bland was the most successful entertainer of his day.

This year’s contest is expected to attract a record number of contestants.  Several years ago, South Boston Lions expanded the contest to surrounding counties and Danville.  Mecklenburg Lions decided to stage their own contest, and it was anticipated that Danville Lions would do the same, but that project has been delayed until next year.

One vocal and one instrumental winner, rendering classical compositions, will each win $300 cash.  This is probably the largest club award in the state. 

They will then be eligible to compete on the district level for $100 U.S. Savings Bonds for winners and $50 U.S. Savings Bonds for runners-up. 

District winners will compete at the Lions Club State Convention in Roanoke next May.  State winners win a $2,500 scholarship.    First and second runners-up receive $2,000 and $1,500 scholarships, respectively.  Fourth, fifth, and sixth place receive $1,000 cash. 

Last year, soprano Alexandra Victoria Austin represented the South Boston Lions Club and Lions District 24B at the state contest.

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 2005-2009 are enrolled in the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University, the Juilliard School of Music, Oberlin School of Music, Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon Musical Theater Program, Yale University, and the Earl V. Moore School of Music at the University of Michigan.

Winners of previous South Boston Lions Club Bland Contests include soprano Rebecca Lynn Whitlow, regularly performing around the world with the Philadelphia Opera Company, and soprano Heather Blount-Elliott, a student at  Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Bland’s career eventually nose-dived after he returned from a triumphant tour of Europe.  When he died of tuberculosis in 1911, his passing went unnoticed.  Lions helped bring him back from obscurity. 

In 1939, Lions of Virginia and Dr. J. Francis, the long-time editor of the music magazine “Etude,” discovered Bland’s unmarked grave, covered in weeds, in Merion Cemetery near Philadelphia.  The Lions placed a wooden marker on his grave. 

A more elaborate granite marker was dedicated in July 1946 in conjunction with the Lions’ international convention in Philadelphia.  Among the special guests was Bland’s aged sister.  In 1948 the Lions of Virginia were instrumental in having Bland’s composition, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, adopted as a state song.

To honor this prolific writer of Americana, the Lions wanted to create a “living monument.” 

In 1948 the Bland Memorial Music Contests were established to do just that. “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” is now the state song emeritus, but Lions still honor James Bland and his place in American musical history through this successful, well-established program for supporting musically-gifted youth.

Lions Clubs International is the world’s largest, and leading, service organization.  Since 1917, Lions have been meeting the needs of local communities and the world. 

Currently, 1.3 million men and women in 200 countries and geographic areas conduct vision and health screenings, build parks, support eye hospitals, award scholarships, assist youth, and provide help in time of disaster and much more. 

Frequently, when many agencies are surveying damage in a disaster area, Lions are already on the scene dispensing funds and providing practical aid.

Admission to the local Bland Contest has previously been free, but this year the cost of admission is one pair of used glasses donated to the South Boston Lions Club.   This concept was an inspiration of Prizery Executive Director Chris Jones.