Posts Tagged ‘Churchill’

Marc Blitzstein, Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1943

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Black American soldier and girlfriend at the Bouillabaisse Club in Old Compton Street, 1943

According to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, the cabinet meeting at Great George Street on 13th October 1942 was very disappointing:

Everyone spoke at once while PM read papers. Discussion was on a low level.

In fact the only contribution Churchill made during the whole meeting was to look up, after Viscount Cranborne, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had pointed out that one of his black Colonial Office staff had been excluded from a certain restaurant at the request of white American troops, and say:

That’s all right: if he takes his banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.

Maybe not Churchill’s finest hour. The cabinet, with or without Churchill fully concentrating, agreed that it was important to respect how the US Army treated its black troops (they were completely segregated) and that it would be less problematic for all-concerned by concluding that:

It was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops.

The war cabinet room at Great George Street. Protected by a five foot layer of solid concrete known as ‘the slab’. Now part of the Churchill War Rooms.

Less than a year later on September 28th 1943 the Daily Express, who had recently been running a pretty strong anti-segregation and anti-colour bar campaign, put on a show at the Royal Albert Hall that was for and on behalf of the visiting ‘coloured American troops’.

At the beginning of the evening and to the sound of rolling drums a single file of two hundred black soldiers from a segregated division of the American Air Forces’ Engineers marched onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of September 28th 1943. The nervous soldiers were joined on stage by Roland Hayes the renowned black lyric-tenor who had travelled to England specifically for the occasion.

Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ were at the prestigious venue for the debut of an orchestral work called ‘Morning Freedom’. The piece of music was described as a ‘tone poem’ set to traditional ‘negro spirituals and songs’ by its composer – the controversial communist and, as far as the mores of the day allowed, the pretty-well openly gay Corporal Marc Blitzstein.

The dapper Roland Hayes performing at the Royal Albert Hall, 28th September 1943

Corporal Marc Blitzstein the gay, communist American composer.

The two-hundred strong ‘negro chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall.

The black serviceman choir was originally put together by Private McDaniel from Kansas City as a quartet to sing spirituals and hymns they would have sung at church back home. Slowly the singing group grew to the two hundred men that made up the chorus Blitzstein used for the Albert Hall concert. 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.

members of the audience at the Albert Hall watching Blitzstein’s Morning Freedom

Roland Hayes, a son of two former slaves, was well known to British audiences of the time , although unlike his contemporary Paul Robeson, almost completely forgotten in Britain now. He had first came to London twenty three years ago. Hayes, born in Georgia, had been finding it next to impossible to find prestigious engagements in his homeland and decided to travel to Britain to further his career.

Incredibly within a year of arriving in London he was asked to give a private performance to George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace on St Georges Day 1921. When Hayes arrived at the Palace, it was said that King George told his attendants: “There will be no formalities today. I shall meet Mr. Hayes man to man.” The royal recital immediately gave Hayes international prestige and he toured Britain and Europe to great success.

Roland Hayes painted by Glyn Philpott, 1923

Hugo Weisgall conducting American tenor Roland Hayes and the London Symphony Orchestra

The (Manchester) Guardian wrote of him:

The only really good tenor who has come along lately is the Negro Roland Hayes. His voice is genuine, pure warm and rich, and his artistic instincts are of the finest.

When Hayes visited Berlin in September 1923 he found the appreciation slightly harder to come by. Time magazine that year wrote:

To Germans, black men are “colonials”; they encountered them in the French line during the War; more recently, in the Ruhr. Learning that a member of this unpopular race was to appear publicly in their midst, Berliners were indignant. Protests were made to the American Ambassador against the “impertinence” of permitting a Negro to be heard on the concert stage, against the lèst majesté of offering musically scrupulous Berlin the tunes of the Georgia cotton-pickers.

Not entirely surprisingly, when Hayes appeared on stage, the audience started booing and hissing almost immediately. Hearing the noise the apprehensive singer suddenly decided to change his rehearsed programme and started the evening singing Schubert’s Du Bist Die Ruh. It was a German favourite and the crowd quietened almost immediately but by the end of the song, the audience, throwing their prejudice aside, were on their feet cheering and applauding the black American singer.

Roland Hayes at the Royal Albert Hall, 1943

Exactly twenty years later the British had started to bomb Berlin seemingly on a nightly basis in the hope of breaking the city’s morale. The tide in the war had changed and American soldiers were arriving in Britain in greater and greater numbers, including approximately 130,000 segregated black Americans. In 1943 the entire indigenous black population of Britain was around only a tenth of that number.

I am fully conscious that a difficult social problem might be created if there were a substantial number of sex relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children.” Herbert Morrison (the Home Secretary) in a memorandum for the cabinet, 1942.

The arrival of the black American troops caused disquiet in both the US and UK governments ostensibly because of the fear of racial mixing and miscegenation. Sir Percy James Grigg, the Secretary of State for War, advised in a circular that he intended to be sent to all senior officers in the British Army:

It is necessary for British men and women…to take account of the attitude of white American citizens. British soldiers and auxiliaries should try to understand the American attitude to the relationships of white and coloured people and that difficult problems do arise when people of different races live together.

Sir PJ, as he was known, betrayed a rather hideously ignorant and patronising attitude to black Americans in his circular. ‘Mutual esteem’ indeed.

Tom Driberg, then an Independent M.P., asked the Prime Minister in Parliament to “make friendly representations to the American military authorities asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not a custom of this country.” Time magazine in the US reported that Driberg’s question ‘peeled the blanket of official silence off a complex and dangerous problem’. The magazine quoted eyewitness stories such as:

A pub keeper, indignant at American whites’ behavior toward Negroes, put up a sign on his bar door:

For the use of the British and of colored Americans only.

Three Negroes on a bus leaped to their feet when a white officer boarded it. Said the girl conductor, tartly:

Sit down. This is my bus and this is England.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought Driberg’s question was unfortunate and

…that without any action on my part the points of view of all concerned will be mutually understood and respected.

‘Understood’ and ‘respected’ weren’t probably the first words that came to mind for a lot of people when the US military issued an horrific memorandum of advice, albeit hurriedly withdrawn, for its commanders:

Colored soldiers are akin to well-meaning but irresponsible children. Generally they cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to act on their own initiative except in certain individual cases. The colored individual likes to ‘doll up’, strut, brag and show off. He likes to be distinctive and stand out from the others.

At a cabinet meeting it was agreed that the UK should not object to the Americans segregating their troops, but they must not expect the UK authorities to assist them with this policy. “It should be made clear to the US that there should be no restrictions on the use of canteens, cinemas, pubs and theatres by ‘coloured’ troops”.

Black American GI dancing at the Bouillabaise club in Soho, 1943

“The morale of British troops is likely to be upset by rumours that their wives and daughters are being debauched by American coloured troops”. Herbert Morrison, reporting to the cabinet, 1942.

“There are some white women in this country who feel that American coloured troops are particularly attractive and who run after them, that is a difficulty which will not be cured by keeping American coloured troops out of canteens or clubs at all”. Memorandum from Viscount Simon, Lord Chancellor, 1942.

“For a white woman to go about in the company of a Negro American is likely to lead controversy and ill-feeling, it may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves”. Memorandum from Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal, 1942.

In reality this just wasn’t the case, for instance in 1944 American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was in Britain on a morale boosting tour. He decided to watch a film but when he entered the cinema, he was told by the manager that there was a special section in the cinema which was reserved for black troops. Louis recalled:

Shit! This wasn’t America, this was England. The theatre manager knew who I was and apologized all over the place. Said he had instructions from the Army. So I called my friend Lieutenant General John Lee and told them they had no business messing up another country’s customs with American Jim Crow.

Marc Blitzstein, determined to do his bit in the fight against fascism, joined the US 8th Army Air Force after the USSR entered the war. Stationed in London he was also the music director of the American Broadcasting Station (eventually to become ABC) and continued to compose.

Before the war he had written a musical that had made his name – The Cradle Will Rock. The show was about striking steel-workers and produced by the young Orson Welles (the success of the productions inspired him to start the Mercury Theatre).

Marc Blitzstein with Leonard Bernstein at the piano in 1943

Now Blitzstein was in London he became incensed about the blatant oppression and segregation of the second-class soldiers that made up the so-called ‘colored units’. Black soldiers, whatever their rank, were always seen as subservient to white officers. The segregation of the black soldiers inspired the composer to write Morning Freedom and he dedicated it to their struggle.

The ‘Negro Chorus’ performing ‘Morning Freedom’.

Roland Hayes

At the Royal Albert Hall Morning Freedom was performed for the first time. McDaniel’s chorus was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergeant Hugo Weisgall. The choir with the help of Roland Hayes also sang Blitzstein-arranged spirituals such as Go Down Moses and In the Sweet By and By. They also sang Ballad for Americans a political song made famous by Paul Robeson.

At the end of the concert the audience of over five thousand stood up and ‘enthusiastically acclaimed’ the performance. The Evening Standard wrote:

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 Times was equally as effusive:

without parallel in the long and varied sequence of events that have taken place within its encircling walls.

Marc Blitzstein carried on composing after the war but in terms of commercial and popular success it was Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation and translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that made the greatest impact. Incidentally, due presumably to the lack of threepenny bits in America, Blitzstein had toyed with calling the musical ‘The Two-Bit Opera’ or the ‘Shoestring Opera’.

The production, featuring Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya recreating her original role, albeit this time in English, enjoyed one of the longest runs in New York’s theatre history. By the end of the decade Blitzstein’s version of Mack the Knife became a huge hit for several singers including, of course, Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1958, Blitzstein appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he admitted his membership of the Communist Party although he had left in 1949. However he refused to name names or co-operated any further.

In January 1964, holidaying in Martinique, and after a session of heavy drinking, Blitzstein picked up three Portuguese sailors. Pretending to initially respond to his sexual advances they eventually robbed him, beat him and stripped him of all his clothes. The injuries didn’t seem serious at first but he died the next day of internal bleeding on January 22nd 1964.

American serviceman were paid up to five times the amount their British equivalent earned.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981. It at last integrated the military and ensured the equality of treatment and opportunity for black soldiers. It also made it illegal in military law to make a racist remark. Unsurprisingly the American army dragged its feet and the proper desegregation of the military was not complete for several years and in fact persisted during the Korean War. The last all-black unit in the US Army wasn’t disbanded until 1954.

American public information film called ‘Know Your Ally – Britain’. Apparently the island is as crowded as a sardine tin.

Nat ‘King’ Cole – In the Sweet By and By

Roland Hayes – Du Bist die Ruh

Paul Robeson – Ballad for Americans

Roland Hayes – He Never Said a Mumberlin’ Word


St Paul’s Cathedral, Lord Rothermere, and the Second Great Fire of London

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

St Paul’s Cathedral, 29th December 1940

A long way from St Pauls Cathedral in Bermuda on the 26th November 1940 Harold Harmsworth, better known as Lord Rothermere – the famous proprietor and co-founder of the Daily Mail – died of what was described at the time as ‘dropsy’. Before the tired and sad old man fell unconscious he said:

There is nothing I can do to help my country now.

It could be said, especially in the years preceding the Second World War, that he hadn’t really done much to help his country anyway. He had been a great supporter of pre-war appeasement with Germany, he had been a fan of Adolf Hitler, and a supporter of Oswald Moseley and the British Union of Fascists, for which he infamously had the Daily Mail in 1933 proclaim:

‘Hurrah for the Black Shirts!’

Rothermere wrote that Britain’s survival could only possibly depend on ‘the existence of a Great Party of the Right with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed’.

Hurray for the Blackshirts!

Advert for the next Monday’s issue of the Daily Mail.

Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere in his civvies.

Only a month after he died the Daily Mail started to make amends. Their New Year’s edition featured one of the most memorable images of the Second World War. The right in the middle of the morale-sapping Blitz, it almost certainly helped maintain resolve in the capital.

New Year’s Eve 1940 edition of the Daily Mail.

The newspaper confidently described the photograph, maybe slightly early in the proceedings, as the ‘War’s Greatest Picture’. It featured St Paul’s Cathedral beautifully framed in some clearing smoke and dust after one of the worst Luftwaffe raids on London. The Daily Mail knew that the picture had powerful connotations and described it as:

one that all Britain will cherish – for it symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.

The photograph had been taken two days earlier by Herbert Mason, a staff Daily Mail photographer at 6.30pm in the evening. It was in the middle of the three-hour raid and he’d been fire-watching on the roof of the Daily Mail building known as Northcliffe House in Carmelite Street a road situated between Fleet Street and the Thames. He later described taking the photograph:

I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke. The glare of many fires and sweeping clouds of smoke kept hiding the shape. Then a wind sprang up. ­Suddenly, the shining cross, dome and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno. The scene was unbelievable. In that moment or two, I released my shutter.

Herbert Mason

The German bombers that evening had dropped 120 tons of high explosive but also an estimated 22,000 two pound incendiary bombs. The thermite and magnesium of these bombs burnt at 2,200 degrees Celsius with a searing, dazzling glare. Incendiaries were usually used as a way of initially lighting up a target area, this time however, they caused an extraordinary amount of destruction on their own. Their utter profusion created firestorms where the sheer heat of the fire sucked in its own wind to create huge furnaces that quickly enveloped the surrounding buildings around St Pauls.

The American Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ernie Pyle described the scene that night:

The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Incendiary bombs exploding

Very important information, for some reason relayed by naked women, about how to deal with incendiary bombs

Luftwaffe 1kg Incendiary bomb. It’s said that 22,000 of these fell in three hours

It was said that Air Vice Marshall Harris, later infamously known as ‘Bomber’ Harris, or even ‘Butcher’ Harris (both terms were at the time meant to be complimentary), looked upon the conflagration in the City of London and said: ‘They have sowed the wind…’. It wasn’t going to be an idle threat.

It was a particularly low tide the Sunday night of the raid and the fireman had to wade out through the mud on the side of the Thames to find water for their hoses. Despite this, and it seems almost incredible now, the fires were generally brought under control by four in the morning. The night quickly became known as the second fire of London and caused devastation in the old part of the City.

In Whitecross Street the firemen, for their own survival, had to turn their hoses upon themselves. They somehow managed to escape into a nearby railway tunnel leaving their engines to burn until they were just melted shells. That part of Whitecross Street which ran down to Fore Street at St Giles Church is now lost forever and part of the Barbican development.

The aftermath of a firestorm in Whitecross Street

Sixteen firemen lost their lives on the evening of the 29th. Eight in one go after a building collapsed on them.

A burning St Bride’s just off Fleet Street

Hundreds of buildings were completely destroyed that night including eight Christopher Wren Churches built after the original Fire of London. 160 people died including 16 fireman with 500 people injured.

Although legend has it otherwise, St Paul’s Cathedral certainly wasn’t untouched. Twenty nine bombs fell on or around the building and at one point one incendiary pierced the lead covering of the dome and after burning through some timbers fell harmlessly to the nave below where it was easily put out.

A hole in the floor of St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul’s – the day after

Moorgate Station completely burnt out. 30th December 1940. The whole station is covered in office buildings now.

The War Cabinet convened the next morning and at Winston Churchill’s instigation it was agreed:

that the fullest publicity should be given to the damage caused in the city. As no military objectives had been aimed at, and the enemy must have known what he was attacking, there was no object in secrecy.

Thus the usual restrictions to publishing photographs were lifted and the Daily Mail printed the Mason’s photograph the next day.

A cartoon from Illingworth published by the Daily Mail on the same day, New Year’s Eve 1940

Lord Rothermere and Hitler

As mentioned previously the Daily Mail and its larger than life former proprietor, hadn’t always been helpful in the fight against the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1938, only two years before the raid that flattened the area around St Paul’s Cathedral the Daily Mail wrote:

The way stateless Jews from Germany are poring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage.

And less than two months before the beginning of the war, Lord Rothermere sent a telegram to Hitler stating:

My Dear Führer, I have watched with understanding and interest the progress of your great and superhuman work in regenerating your country.

He added:

The British people, now like Germany strongly rearmed, regard the German people with admiration as valorous adversaries in the past, but I am sure that there is no problem between our two countries which cannot be settled by consultation and negotiation…I have always thought that you are essentially one who hates war and desires peace.

Up to a point, Lord Rothermere.

In the 1930s Rothermere had donated money to the British Union of Fascists and used his paper to openly support Oswald Moseley. However in 1933, Rothermere did write in the Mail something slightly more prescient:

The day of the warplane has come. Our desperate deficiency in these modern weapons puts the very existence of Britain in Deadly peril. Fate has never pardoned a people that refused to move with the times.

In February 1942, just over two years after the so-called ‘Second Fire of London’ the newly promoted Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris announced to the nation that it was time that Germany, ‘now that they have sowed the wind, reaped the whirlwind’. Which of course they did. And some.

The Second Fire of London, posted with vodpod

A view of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1930

How Could We Be Wrong – Al Bowlly

You Couldn’t Be Cuter – Al Bowlly

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