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April 8, 1939
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

April 8, 1939

On April 8, 1939, the Norfolk Journal and Guide ran a letter to editor about a simmering controversy over Louis Armstrong’s swing version of a spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Reverend J. Williams-Thomas of Cape Henry, Virginia, wrote to the Journal and Guide to defend Armstrong:

The song under consideration was practically dead in the Church. Our fathers sang it because they were moved to song. It was an expression of the heart’s emotion. The words of the song are words of depression. Chattel slavery was easier when it was sung. The economic experience of the present Church is not conducive to the creation of a song like “When the Saints Go Marching In”...The Church should adjust itself in a changing civilization for if the Church does not color this age, modern culture will whitewash the Church and the singing in short and long meters will be forgotten. The world will find consolation in ‘swing’ music. 

Mr. Armstrong really pulled the skeleton out of the closet. In fact the song has only been dressed up in a modern attire and made attractive. Most Christians will admit that they love the song. Those of the old school love it for its words and its meaning, and the young set love it for its rhythm, meaning, and reviving power. Which is the lesser of two evils? The moral value of the song is not damaged and it touches the soul of this generation for a good purpose.

Reverend George W. Harvey, pastor at New Hope Baptist church in Braddock, Pennsylvania, was the most outspoken critic of Armstrong’s version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and similarly styled songs. “The sacrilegious desecration of Spirituals, the only real American music as it is sung in gin shops, dance halls, over the radio and on records in various non-descript amusement places is a disgrace to the whole race,” Harvey argued.

Here are a few more takes in the black press on the controversy over swing versions of spirituals:

Here is Louis Armstrong and his band performing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in Australia in 1963: