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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:
- “Church-folk Ask Glaser to Let Satchmo’ try His Vocals on Other Hymnals,” New York Amsterdam News, June 17, 1939: “‘Why doesn’t [manager] Joe Glaser let Louis Armstrong record a swing version of the Hebrew sacred anthem, ‘Eilie, Eilie’” asks a church-going reader of these pages in a letter to the showlife editor this week. According to him, Negroes the nation over would would be glad to hear ol’ Satchmo get off on an arrangement of that age-old hymnal, especially since he has done so well with jump versions of heretofore sacred Negro spirituals.” (PDF)
- I. P. Reynolds, Atlanta Daily World, May 21, 1939: “I don’t see a bit of harm in swinging any song. Until the church stops swinging the old Christian hymns in their revivals, the pot can’t call the kettle black.” (PDF)
- “Teachers, Song Writers and Choir Singers Join in Protest Against Swinging Spirituals: Letters Continue to Pour into Courier Office, Many Show Grave Indignation Over Revelations Exposed by Rev. Harvey’s Article,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 1, 1939. (PDF)
- C. M. Harris, letter to the editor Pittsburgh Courier, June 1, 1940: “The rights of all churches should be protected. This is, in fact, guaranteed by our constitution. I write this letter of protest about the growing custom of Negro dance orchestras jazzing the religious songs of the Negro.” (PDF)
- Lillie Morris, letter to the editor Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 29, 1939: “A few weeks ago I went to see a movie, and on that particular night there was an amateur program. When one of the performers came out on the stage and started jazzing the favorite old spiritual, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ I wanted to rise from my seat and shout to him, ‘Stop.’...I think that religious songs jazzed should be forbidden by law under a heavy penalty.” (PDF)