WWII Negro Army Chorus: power of song for change

During the Second World War, amidst global crisis, citizens of many lands reached across borders in solidarity. Though the alliance against the Nazi and fascist assault on liberty was an accepted norm, this was not the case within our own military. African American soldiers escaped the apartheid South and “separate but (not generally) equal” North just long enough to be subject to a segregated Army and Navy.

Though deemed second-class soldiers, these Negro units overcame the greatest adversity and were heroic in their service. Although much of their history has been obliterated by racism, the struggle of these units has come to public attention in recent years. A largely untold story, however, is that of the U.S. Army Negro Chorus and the power of its song.

Composer and Communist Marc Blitzstein, already noted for such monumental works as “The Cradle Will Rock,” volunteered for military service within the U.S. Army. Like numerous others on the left, Blitzstein saw the fight against fascism as the preeminent task. However, after enlisting, he came to understand the internal oppression against the so-called “colored” units.

Charlie Kirsh, a white Army medical officer in charge of a Black unit, stood alone as a progressive among his peers, almost all of whom were segregationist Southerners. The Black soldiers, regardless of rank, were subservient to the white officers and subject to any number of abuses. Blitzstein and Kirsh quickly became friends, though they avoided most political discussion.

The ensemble consisted of 200 African American GIs formed initially as a means of aiding the Black troops’ withered morale. The men were members of four different battalions, giving them a unique opportunity for internal organizing.

The chorus’ founders included Musical Director Sgt. Alexander Jordan, Assistant Director Cpl. James McDaniel (both aviation engineers) and Chaplain William Perkins. An important soloist to the group, added soon after, was Pfc. Kenneth Cantril.

The chorus’ repertoire was largely comprised of spirituals. “Go Down, Moses,” “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” were among their most requested numbers.

Blitzstein began working with the group soon after its formation. He wrote a piece for them entitled “Freedom Morning,” which was dedicated to the Black soldiers’ struggle. He also arranged Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans” – made famous by Paul Robeson – for the group. Clearly, Blitzstein’s agenda was not standard Army issue.

However, this was before the start of the Cold War and official U.S. policy was one of partnership with the USSR; all things progressive were still acceptable in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

The chorus’ debut performance in September 1943 held great international relevance: it was at London’s Royal Albert Hall in front of numerous dignitaries. The chorus, though equipped with gifted soloists, included the renowned Black American tenor Roland Hayes, who remained with the group for some time. The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sgt. Hugo Weisgall, provided the accompaniment.

By all accounts, including the military’s own Stars and Stripes, the audience of over 5,000 “enthusiastically acclaimed” the performance. London’s Evening Standard reviewer declared this concert “the most remarkable ceremony I have ever attended in that famous meeting place. The audience was in ecstasy … it was impossible to believe that the chorus had not sung together before in public. The singing was perfectly polished and 1st Sgt. Alexander B. Jordan, who conducted, proved himself an artist of the first order.”

Such praise was standard in the European media, whose reporters, evidently, missed the irony of the Black troops’ segregation and the conditions awaiting them back home. The reviewer concluded his article by describing the impact of the chorus’ rendition of “Ballad for Americans”:

“‘Who was for liberty?’ the chorus asks. And the answer came back, ‘Nobody who was anybody believed it. Everybody who was anybody doubted it.’ There are great hopes for a nation which applauds and upholds its heretics as heroes.”

In a recent interview, Charlie Kirsh and his wife Leah, looking back on time spent with the soldiers in Charlie’s charge as well as their contact with Blitzstein, expanded on this concept of “heretics as heroes.” With the knowledge that can only come with the passage of time, they continue to describe, with excitement, the radicalism of a segregated Black Army chorus in the company of an outspoken cultural worker.

Although the blacklist and intensified FBI investigations had not yet become commonplace during these high years of WWII, the Kirshes couldn’t help but notice an apparent misprint in the pages of their cherished copy of Stars and Stripes: the U.S. Army, in describing the 1943 concert, dubbed the celebrated composer and soldier “Marx” Blitzstein. But then this “heretic” was only a hero to those who knew better.

The author can be reached at leftmus@earthlink.net.