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Monday, April 20, 2020

The beginning of a century-long love affair between France and black American music ?

Ann Alex's review of BBC Radio 4's series Black Music in Europe: A Hidden History brought to mind a piece I wrote up last year after reading David Olusoga's* The World's War, about the forgotten soldiers of various European nation's empires, the USA and other countries made to participate in the First World War. There is a short section entitled The beginning of a century-long love affair between France and black American music ? - Brian Ebbatson.
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“The 93rd Division (Colored) had been assembled from various African-American National Guard units, volunteers and draftees from the more liberal Northern and North-eastern states. The 93rd contained four black regiments, the most famous of which was the 369th Infantry Regiment – formerly the 15th New York National Guard, soon to be known as the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’.


The 93rd was trained and dispatched to France on the firm promise that its men would be allowed to fight. They arrived at St Nazaire on board the USS PocahontasAmong the men of the 369th Infantry were the forty-four members of the regimental band, some of Harlem’s finest professional musicians, under the leadership of James Reese Europe, who was a pioneer of ragtime in New York City and the leading light of the legendary Clef Club. In the dockside at St Nazaire the band brought a little of Harlem to France, playing their arrangement of the ‘Marseillaise’. Some have pointed to this moment as being the first performance of jazz – or more accurately its musical precursor, ragtime – in France, an event that marked the beginning of a century-long love affair between France and black American music. The moment of history was somewhat lost on the French soldiers present, however, who were reportedly slow to stand to attention to their national anthem, the jazz arrangement was so inventive that it took several bars before they could recognize it for what it was.”      (pages 341-342)   (My emphasis – BE).

David Olusoga goes on to describe how 80% of approximately 200,00 African-Americans who served their country in the First World War were consigned to the Supply of Services (SOS) labour corps, rather than be the combat troops they were trained to become. Because the US command did not want African-Americans fighting alongside white Americans, four regiments of the 93rd Division were transferred to the French Army in March 1918. Of these the 369th Regiment suffered 1,300 casualties and were awarded the French Croix de Guerre for their bravery. (page 343) They were however not represented in the American Expeditionary Force’s contingent at the Paris Victory Parade on the 14th July 1919. (page 403).

On their return to the USA the 369th Regiment “marched through Manhattan in a special parade. Lined up sixteen abreast – an unfamiliar French formation – they marched up Fifth Avenue with the regimental band leading the way playing French military marches. The parade took them through central Manhattan, along streets lined with white Americans, then up to Harlem. ……. The leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Organisation, Marcus Garvey, was said to have wept at the sight of the 369th Infantry parading through the city. That whites, too, had lined Fifth Avenue was taken by some as a hopeful sign that …. the United States might be on the verge of a new era of black-white relations. But African Americans returning to their homes in the South quickly understood that …..  their overseas service had cast them in the minds of many whites as dangerous, radicalized black men who needed to be put back in their place.”

On Armistice Day Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi declared that: “Now that the war is over we shall soon be face to face with the military negro, and if this country is to be spared much trouble we shall need men in office who can realize the truth that where the negro constitutes any appreciable percentage of the population, he must be separated from the white people. Unless that policy shall be pursued, the result will be disastrous for the negro and unfortunate for the white man”. (pages 389-390)
Brian Ebbatson.

Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters) band outside the YMCA canteen in La Bourboule, France.




More on James Reese Europe: 
* David Oligusa - of this manor (brought up on the Tyne).

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