Music and morale
Morale is key to the development of loyalty and motivation within any organisation. In 1943, low morale among Black troops in the US and abroad was a cause of concern for the military. There were race riots and conflagrations in Detroit and in Beaumont; in the UK, there were riots at Bamber Bridge in Lancashire and in Launceston in Cornwall. In Ipswich, white troops were arrested for threatening to beat up Black troops seen with white women.
Aviation support units such as the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment worked long hours doing physically gruelling work. The paucity of, and limited access to, facilities available for Black troops in the segregated army compared to the facilities for white troops was a source of constant frustration and dissatisfaction. Whilst there were no major policy changes during the war, and the military remained segregated until 1948, some measures were taken to recognise the achievements of black troops and to boost morale, including creating a Black only Choir.
The ETOUSA [European Theatre of War USA] Morale and Special Services Guide issued in May 1943 advised officers that “Music is a language everyone speaks. The soldier speaks it with gusto. He’s a singing man— under his improvised shower, when he marches. At times he sings when he fights.” There was some opposition to the idea of the choir as a way to boost morale as it reinforced a stereotyped image. Many people believed that it would be better to show the men doing valuable war work. However, recruitment to the choir was popular amongst Black Servicemen who were stationed in Suffolk.
This chorus of 200 enlisted men from the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment became famous across the world. They sang in England in draughty Nissen Huts, in churches, in village halls and in The Royal Albert Hall. They sang in France, for villagers and for other Allied troops.
Men were recruited to the chorus from throughout the regiment. Rehearsals were fitted in around the construction of airfields in East Anglia. The fame of the chorus grew, and they were invited to perform at prestigious locations in the UK. Noted tenor Roland Hayes was invited to come to London and perform with the chorus. Marc Blitzstein composed ‘Freedom Morning’ which he dedicated to the struggles of black soldiers and he arranged Earl Robinson’s ‘Ballad for America’ for the chorus.
On Saturday 25 September 1943 the New York Age reported that “Roland Hayes and a Big Choir of Negro Soldiers” in England were to sing with the London Symphony Orchestra.
“Rehearsals for the concert…are held in Nissen hut theaters in a section of rural England. Members of the chorus, all of whom are working double shifts to rush the completion of airdromes, are devoting whatever free time they have to the practice sessions and have given up all pass privileges for the past month”.
Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) visited England in Autumn 1943, as part of his tour of the European and African Theatres of War, meeting Black service personnel and reporting on conditions and experiences. In his book A Rising Wind he describes attending a special performance by the chorus in a dimly lit, cold and draughty Nissen hut. His party had to drive through the black-out to reach the base. He recalled that there was no light, no moon or stars and no road signs. The men were cold and dressed in their mud-stained work clothes. He described the singing as “a moment of superlative beauty amid the perils and discomforts of war”.
The chorus performed at The Royal Albert Hall on 28 and 29 September 1943 and then toured the country performing in Manchester, Edinburgh and in St Andrews Hall in Glasgow in October 1943. The concerts also featured a performance of Freedom Morning by the London Symphony Orchestra. The piece was described as a ‘tone poem set to traditional negro spirituals and songs’. The US Ambassador to London John ‘Gil’ Winant reportedly said that hearing the chorus perform at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the two or three great emotional moments in a man’s life.
The BBC Archives have recordings of one of the choir’s performances during the Autumn of 1943. You can listen to here:
The performance was featured in the Life Magazine in November 1943. (click to enlarge)
Private McDaniel explained to Life magazine about the soldiers’ love of spirituals:
“Christianity means a lot to us dark boys. A man that can sing a good spiritual can always find his way into another boy’s heart”