Saturday, February 24, 2018

Waiting for the Delta Blues to Come to Paris

African American Music in France in the 1930s
By Andre Prevos

By Mezzo y Dupont
Today in France the popular music of Black Americans from the Delta and elsewhere is widely known and easily encountered either in record stores or on the radio. Yet the music of the Mississippi River Delta was hardly known in France in the 1930s. Very few French jazzmen knew about the country blues, and even fewer French jazz buffs were showing any sustained interest in the blues. Among these French jazz buffs, some considered the blues as a form of jazz--an early form to be sure --but many did not show any interest in a musical form they sometimes ignored, did not clearly understand, or, at times, considered equivalent to jazz.

This essay will focus on African American music in France in the 1930s. The first part delineates the roads taken by African American musicians in the late 1910s and 1920s. Then, the impact of jazz and the role of some of its musicians will be detailed. Finally, the introduction of African American religious music in France during the 1930s--Negro spirituals and gospel--will be treated. As the title of this essay suggests, the Delta blues did not arrive in France until the 1950s and, more fully, during the "blues revival" of the 1960s, but the foundation for that arrival and revival was being laid during the thirties.

The United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917. About thirteen percent of the American soldiers in Europe were African Americans, and a majority of these soldiers either served as musicians or were assigned other non-combat positions.[1] The U.S. Army had brought several military bands to accompany the marching soldiers and entertain the troops. Among the African American musicians serving in the U.S. Army who left a trace of their passage in France were Tym Bryn and James Reese Europe. In 1918, a group named The Seven Black Devils under the direction of Tym Bryn toured France. These musicians were part of the band of the U.S. 350th Artillery Regiment (Schroeder 1985, 27). James Reese Europe, who was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1881 and had become a renowned bandleader in New York City by the 1910s, was asked by Colonel William Haywood to organize a band for the U.S. Fifteenth Infantry. Europe auditioned musicians from all over the United States, Puerto-Rico, and the Caribbean. This band, nicknamed The Hell Fighters, was the most popular of all U.S. Army bands during World War I. While in France, Europe and the group toured extensively, performing for U.S. servicemen as well as French audiences and French government officials. They even performed for the Congress of Women in Paris in 1918. According to Eileen Southern, the French called James Reese Europe's music "jazz" (1982, 129).

Among other groups mentioned in the French press were the Mitchell Jazz Kings, who performed at the Casino de Marigny along with a popular French singer named Mistinguett in 1919. Jean Cocteau, the French intellectual and artist, praised the African American jazz musicians and the French popular singer in an article in the newspaper Paris . Midi (Danchin 1994, 11). In 1919 the Southern Syncopated Orchestra under the direction of Will Marion Cook toured Europe. In his article on the band's performance, Ernest Ansermet, a Swiss-born music conductor, described the tunes performed and gave the reader an in-depth characterization of the music featured during their concerts (1938). First, they performed several spirituals, including "Go Down Moses." Then several blues followed and left a strong impression upon Ansermet, who remarked: "I am inclined to believe that it is in the blues that the genius of the black race manifests itself in the strongest fashion." Ansermet was deeply impressed by Sidney Bechet, born in 1897 in New Orleans, who played clarinet in Cook's band. Ansermet tied the blues to the African American people, thus emphasizing its ethnic origins and characteristics. In addition, the Swiss-born music director underlined the role of the soloists in these "jazz" bands: the impact left by Bechet was due to the solos taken by the clarinet-player during the concert. It is likely that, for Ansermet, the term "blues" served more as a synonym for "African American music" than as an exact definition of what is known today as "blues."[2] The impact of Bechet, who was playing soprano saxophone by then, on the French jazz scene after World War II made him a truly popular performer in Europe as well as in his own country of origin until his death in Paris on 14 May 1959 (Southern 1982, 31).

During the 1920s, the number of French movie houses and music halls markedly increased due, in part, to the flourishing economy and the development of popular entertainment. Jazz fit the new outlook on life prevalent during these years. Its impact was solidified through the association between jazz music and the career of Josephine Baker and her famous performance in the Revue negre at the Champs Elysees Theater in 1925. Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, and performed with travelling shows for several years until she reached New York. In 1925, she left for Paris (Southern 1982, 24).

Jazz was used as a way to express one's reaction against war. The "shock value" of the music and its total "foreignness" to French popular musical forms made it an ideal vehicle for those who wanted to express unconventional attitudes. Surrealists and their followers who opposed the "traditional way of life" and the bourgeois consensus that had been so badly damaged between 1914 and 1918 liked jazz. A more down-to-earth development also helped the diffusion of jazz in France after 1925. The Pathe Freres record company, which had been granted the monopoly on record production and distribution in France, was sold to Columbia Records in 1925, and foreign labels were allowed to sell or distribute their records in France (Sauret 1997, 10).

Memphis-born Alberta Hunter, who became famous in Chicago in the 1920s, was the first blues artist to tour France in the 1920s (Buzelin 1985, 34). She was a "classic" blues singer whose stage show included varied musical styles: vaudeville songs, jazz, and blues. Her first European tour took place in 1925. In 1927 she performed in the city of Nice; in 1928 she was a member of the cast for Showboat, touring Europe with Paul Robeson. She performed in Parisian cabarets in 1929.

The early French jazz researchers started their inquiries during the 1920s as well. Andre Shaeffner grouped several of his own essays into a book in 1926. Shaeffner mentions the blues there, seeing it as the secular equivalent for Black Americans in the 1920s of the slaves' spirituals. For Shaeffner, blues was a recent African American musical style, and as had Ansermet, he associated the blues with sadness and suffering.[3] Throughout the 1920s in France, however, few jazz and blues artists performed in music halls and cabarets. For the majority of the French public, neither jazz nor the blues carried much meaning. The term "jazz" may have been better known simply because it was used by journalists to characterize all the musical productions by African American musicians and performers--from Will Marion Cook to Josephine Baker and from Sidney Bechet to Alberta Hunter. While it is true that very few among the French who listened to any of these artists were aware of their place of origin, many did have ties to the Mississippi River Delta. However, for the French audiences who listened to Josephine Baker or to Sidney Bechet in the 1920s, the music they heard was significantly more important than the specific geographical origin of the artists who interpreted it.

Foreign record labels became available in France after 1925. In addition to Columbia, other labels present in France by the 1930s included Gramophone (distributor for His Master's Voice), Decca (founded in 1930), Parlophone, Polydor (distributor for the Brunswick, Melotone, and Vocalion labels), and Odeon. In 1929, Odeon issued a selection of 78 rpm recordings by Louis Armstrong for OKeh, the American label. According to Charles Delaunay, only fifty copies of each record were published (1985, 45). Other 78 rpms appeared in France: recordings by Louis Armstrong as well as by Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Benny Goodman. The majority of these were jazz recordings, but there were several blues issues among them--for example, "Basin Street Blues" and "Yellow Dog Blues." The people in charge of these labels were often at a loss when it came to the classification of blues recordings. For example, they rightfully placed "Dallas Blues" by Ted Lewis (Columbia DF 765) or "St. Louis Blues" by Jimmy Dorsey (Decca F 1878) in the jazz category. But when it came to classic blues singer Clara Smith, Columbia issued her recordings under the heading "Negro songs," along with recordings by Rev. J.C. Burnett and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This categorization suggests that Columbia executives perceived a difference between Clara Smith's music and jazz, while making clear their inability accurately to define and name this difference.[4]

French musicians in the classical tradition such as Darius Milhaud had considered jazz as a "very 1920s music" (Andreotta 1946, 12-13). By the 1930s, "hot" jazz had made it to France. In 1929, Etienne Mougin wrote that hot jazz was characterized by the presence of "blue notes," by the musicians' improvisation, and, essentially, by its "swing" (1929, 2). This new jazz music influenced the formation of French jazz bands in the 1930s and the earliest recordings of jazz and blues by French musicians. Alix Combelle, Andre Ekyan, Michel Warlop, and Ray Ventura et ses Collegiens became the French jazz bands most appreciated by French jazz buffs. In 1932, Ray Ventura's band recorded two "classic" blues tunes, "Saint Louis Blues" and "Saint James Infirmary" (Decca F 2851), on what is commonly considered the earliest blues recording by a French jazz band.[5] In the 1930s, King Vidor's film Hallelujah was shown in many movie houses in French cities and contributed to the widespread acquaintance of the French public with African American music of all types. The movie includes songs by religious choirs, blues by classic blues singer Victoria Spivey, and songs by a Memphis jug band, Cannon's Jug Stompers.

Hallelujah and the availability of recordings by hot jazz musicians led to the creation of a significant group of hot jazz buffs in France. These early fans produced the first French jazz critics and researchers. Stephane Mougin created a magazine called La Revue du Jazz and a second simply named Jazz; later he created Jazz, Tango, Dancing. As early as 1931, Jacques Bureau produced a jazz program on Radio L.L. in Paris. In 1932 Bureau played "Saint Louis Blues" by Louis Armstrong, likely the earliest blues broadcast in France.[6] Two years later, Ray Binder wrote a short history of jazz in which he indicated that jazz and blues had their origins in slavery times and underlined that these musical forms were a true popular music for Black Americans (1931, 6). In 1932, Robert Goffin, a Belgian poet associated with the Surrealists, wrote Aux frontieres du jazz, in which he differentiated what he called "straight jazz" from "hot jazz" (Goffin 1932). The early 1930s also witnessed the emergence of Hugues Panassie, who, at age eighteen, was a record critic for La Revue du Jazz, and of Pierre Noury and Madeleine Gautier (who soon focused on the blues).

The availability of jazz records did not mean that they were found in a large number of shops throughout France. The sales of jazz records in France remained hardly noticeable throughout the 1930s. Charles Delaunay has estimated that no more than two hundred copies of any given jazz record were sold throughout the country during the decade. The wealthiest jazz buffs tried to buy or order records from countries close to France: the United Kingdom and Switzerland, in particular. Others ordered directly from American record companies. In the 1920s and 1930s, records were fragile, expensive, and hard to get. Only well-off individuals among the bourgeois class bought and collected them. This situation led to the creation of the first jazz clubs. Jacques Bureau, Pierre Noury, Edwin Dirats, Jacques Auxenfants, and Hughes Panassie created the Hot Club de France in 1932. The first Hot Club was located in Paris, but other large cities in France soon had their own branch of the Hot Club de France. The goals of the association were: "1--to regroup jazz fans, 2--to popularize, defend, and establish jazz music in a suitable place amongst the other artistic expressions of our times" (Fondation 1932, 9). Local branches of the Hot Club de France organized meetings where jazz fans listened to, bought, or exchanged records. Charles Delaunay soon joined the Hot Club de France and became one of its most notable members. After taking charge of the club's administration, he created in 1934 a "service of record research and exchange," a truly appreciated service that lasted until the early 1940s (Delaunay 1985, 66-67). Another goal of the Hot Club de France was the organization of concerts by jazz and blues performers. In May 1933, jazz pianist Freddie Johnson was the first African American artist to play before the Hot Club de France. His concert was so well attended that a second one, this time with blues singer Alberta Hunter, was organized. A sold-out performance took place on 30 June 1933 at the Salle Pleyel music hall in Paris. The reporter does not mention whether Alberta Hunter sang blues at this concert. In 1936 at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, she did sing "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" (Compte-rendu 1936, 16).

Contacts between French and American jazz buffs increased after Duke Ellington's Orchestra toured France in July 1933. John Hammond, the Columbia Records producer, accompanied Ellington and met with Panassie. Hammond was made "World President of the Hot Club" and helped establish contacts between French and American jazz fans and critics such as Preston Jackson and George F. Frazier. In 1934, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong performed in Paris. Both were warmly welcomed. Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans in 1900, was already aware of his role as a representative of African American music abroad and welcomed the French members of the Hot Club de France. He was impressed by Panassie and wrote the foreword to the latter's Le Jazz Hot published in 1934. This book remained a key source for French jazz fans throughout the 1940s and established Panassie as one of the early jazz specialists of note. Delaunay also met with Armstrong in order to establish a detailed discography of the musician. Delaunay and Armstrong were thus led to discuss blues since Armstrong had played with many classic blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, and Bertha "Chippie" Hill.

The emergence of this international network of jazz fans signaled a need for a French magazine devoted to jazz. While Jazz, Tango, Dancing had welcomed essays by jazz critics, as the name indicates the magazine was not exclusively dedicated to jazz music. In March 1935 Panassie and the Hot Club de France created Jazz Hot, the first French magazine exclusively devoted to jazz. The two hundred copies of the first issue, which included articles in French as well as in English by specialists from many European countries and the United States, sold in a few weeks. Jazz Hot remained the only French magazine exclusively devoted to jazz until 1949.

During the 1930s in France, Bessie Smith was the only Black American artist considered as a "real" blues performer. The popularity of Bessie Smith among Black Americans in the 1920s was practically unparalleled. She had a repertoire almost exclusively focused on the blues. After the beginning of the Great Depression, though, her popularity waned, and her records lost their appeal among African Americans. She modified her repertoire under the artistic guidance of John Hammond when she recorded for Columbia. It was at this time that French fans discovered her. Panassie was one of her staunchest promoters in France. In 1933, he organized the showing of the short movie Saint Louis Blues, along with other short films featuring Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Jazz, Tango, Dancing mentioned this event in glowing terms, and the author of the report emphasized the deep impact that Bessie Smith's voice had upon the audience (Mercier 1936, 8).[7] The first recordings by Bessie Smith available in Europe were issued by Columbia in May 1934. Several years passed before Smith's earlier recordings from the 1920s came to the attention of French listeners. Panassie used Hammond's connections to have Bessie Smith's recordings from the 1920s sent to him, and he regularly played those records during the lectures he presented before the branches of the Hot Club de France. The report concerning Panassie's lecture before the Bordeaux branch of the Hot Club de France stated, "[O]n 23 January Panassie gave a very interesting speech about jazz music . . . . [A] petition was signed in order to encourage the re-publication of some of the recordings by the 'Empress of the Blues'" (L'actualite 1936, 22). Whether French record companies responded to this request isn't known, but several of Bessie Smith's recordings did become available in France on the Parlophone and Columbia labels. Her death in 1937 transformed her into a legendary figure among French blues enthusiasts, especially when Mezz Mezzrow brought the legend of Bessie Smith's death at the door of a white hospital to France.

The swing period began in the United States in 1936. This new trend in jazz became noted in France because of two stylistic features: the boogie-woogie piano style and the big bands. About the mid-1930s, boogie-woogie pianists appeared on records: Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson, for example. Their recordings arrived in England in 1936 and received high praise in Jazz Hot. Panassie wrote, "Meade Lux Lewis" I'm In the Mood for Love' was a truly remarkable record. I never would have thought that the recording of a celesta solo could be that splendid" (1936, 21). But a detailed study of boogie-woogie did not appear in Jazz Hot until 1938, when American critic William Russell introduced several boogie-woogie pianists on record (Meade Lux Lewis, Cow Cow Davenport, Jabo Williams, Henry Brown, etc.) to French readers. Russell's wealth of information came from his access to "race" records in the United States (1938, 9). These records were not distributed in France at that time.

The mid-thirties also mark the emergence of the big swing bands. John Hammond played a noticeable role in the introduction of these big bands to French jazz buffs. Hammond had encouraged Charlie Christian's inclusion in Benny Goodman's band. He had also invited Count Basie and his band to perform in New York City. These big bands were essentially "stage bands"--that is, ensembles performing in music halls or concert halls in the manner of classical orchestras. They sometimes played in dance halls but in large, well-attended, "bourgeois" venues and prestigious dance clubs. The music they played was varied so that it could be adapted to the different moments of a sophisticated evening. Boogie-woogie encouraged active dancing, while slow tunes were for a later part of the evening. The latter were mostly blues with lyrics belted out by "blues shouters," singers whose strong and loud voices were not drowned by the volume of the band. Such bands as Count Basie's Orchestra were not mentioned in France until 1938. Some of Basie's recordings featured Jimmy Rushing or Helen Humes on vocals.[8] When he went to New York City in 1939, Panassie attended the "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall and indicated how thrilling Basie's band performance had been (1939, 23).

During the 1930s, the popularity of jazz increased in American society at large. On the one hand, musicians such as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington often played for exclusively white audiences. Meanwhile, swing bands and boogie-woogie pianists continued to remain popular among Black Americans even though they progressively veered away from Black audiences. These musicians had begun to record on race records and then managed to gain access to larger segments of the American society. At the same time, other Black musicians continued to record exclusively for the race record market. These records were practically unknown in France since they were often targeted exclusively at Black consumers in the United States. The majority of the classic blues singers had recorded in the 1920s, but they had lost much of their popularity by the mid-1930s. Their records were also hard to come by in the United States. In 1938 and 1939, two essays by George Beall indicated that some 78 rpms by Clara Smith, Sippie Wallace, Ma Rainey, Trixie Smith, and Victoria Spivey were "rare records" (1938, 9; 1939, 11).

Beginning in 1936, British jazz specialist Stanley E Dance listed new American recordings by labels such as Bluebird, Vocalion, and Columbia, thus introducing performers from the Delta to the French jazz public. However, there was little or no specific focus on the geographical origin of the performers. In 1937, Dance cited two Vocalion records by country bluesman Robert Johnson and three others by Casey Bill Weldon, two noted blues artists from the Delta.[9] That same year, Panassie (1937, 16) reviewed two more records. He wrote, "[T]hese are two records of exceptional quality with vocals and guitar accompaniment: '32-20 Blues' / 'Last Fair Deal Gone Down' (American Vocalion 03445) by Robert Johnson and 'Front Door Blues' / 'Back Door Blues' by Casey Bill Weldon (American Vocalion 03330)." Panassie was able to listen to these records thanks to John Hammond. When Hammond had organized the "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in 1937, Bessie Smith was scheduled to appear, but she had died earlier that year. Hammond's efforts to locate Robert Johnson also failed when he learned that the bluesman had died several months earlier.

Panassie was in New York for the 1938 edition of the "Spirituals to Swing" concert and heard performers including a gospel choir (the Mitchell Christian Singers), jazz bands and musicians such as Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier (born in 1890 in Mandeville, Louisiana), and boogie woogie pianists such as Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis as well as Count Basie's band with several blues shouters. Panassie wrote a brief report of the concert: "Overall, the concert was a success. Some singers were rather ordinary. I really enjoyed Big Bill [Broonzy] and Sister [Rosetta] Tharpe (accompanying herself on the guitar). . . . [T]here was also a truly hallucinating blind harmonica player, Sanford Terry, who played blues and other tunes accompanying himself with foot stomping and who drew frightening sounds from his instrument" (1939a: 12). Before returning to France, Panassie bought several 78 rpms at the Commodore Music Shop in New York City. Among these records was one by Little Brother Montgomery that Panassie described as follows: "a truly astonishing record by a complete unknown named Little Brother on Bluebird B10177, titled 'Farrish Street Jive.' It's the primitive style of Southern pianists in all its splendor" (1939b, 14). Records like those that astonished Panassie were hardly ever mentioned in France because they were almost impossible to obtain by whites even in the United States. Jazz Hot did not mention the words "race records." Many French jazz enthusiasts ignored or were not aware of the fact that there was a strong social and commercial separation between the records produced for the white market and race records targeted at the African American market. This situation lasted until the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s.

In the years preceding World War II, the blues as a typical musical expression of African Americans was unknown by the French public at large. The word "blues" evoked only a type of dance music popular in the 1920s or a type of jazz recording. By the mid-1930s, though, some French jazz buffs focused on the blues, and in 1937, Panassie used the term "blues buffs." Madeleine Gautier, one of the earliest translators of Bessie Smith's lyrics into French, was focusing her research on this music. Most of Gautier's articles in Jazz Hot during the 1930s were devoted to Bessie Smith, boogie-woogie pianists, and blues shouters associated with big bands. In the 1930s, many French jazz fans considered blues as one of the sources of jazz. It was not identified as a separate musical style. French blues buffs in the 1930s were primarily jazz buffs who were attracted by the blues musical style played by jazz musicians. This situation also led to the lack of focus on the stylistic differences between the blues styles. Since few of the French jazz enthusiasts were attracted to the blues and since they had only spotty access to recordings available in the United States, they were not always able to differentiate the stylistic specificity of each traditional blues style--Delta, Piedmont, or Texas. These differences only became noticed and documented during the blues revival of the 1960s when older blues artists (sometimes "re-discovered" and encouraged by younger performers) returned to the forefront of the musical developments in the blues field and when recordings illustrating these differences became more easily available even in France.

Several American Protestant churches attempted to create and support missionary efforts in France (especially in Paris) during the second half of the nineteenth century, but these efforts yielded little success and were abandoned by their originators. The Fisk Jubilee Singers apparently did not tour France during their early trips to Europe. They sang in Great Britain and in Germany, but no traces of their performing in Paris (or in any other French city) during the last decades of the nineteenth century have been found. Among the early religiously oriented African American singing groups who did visit France were the Utica Jubilee Singers who performed "Negro Spirituals & Dialect Folk-Songs" at the Grand Casino de Vichy on 22 August 1927.[10] The Hampton Institute Singers sang in France in the spring of 1930 (Lovell 1972, 410).

One reason for the absence of African American spiritual and gospel groups until the 1930s may have been the fact that France was then a solid Roman Catholic country, even though American Catholics seldom had strong opposition to the presence of gospel music among practitioners and services (Cogdell DjeDje 1986, 223-252). African American spirituals had become known very early in Martinique. La Paix newspaper on 19 January 1929 mentioned that there had been a conference about "Black singing in the United States" the previous Thursday by Miss Jeanne Nardal, who belonged to one of the well-to-do families that represented the so-called "Black intellectual elite" of the French Caribbean. One of the most significant individuals in the introduction of African American religious music from the United States to France was Louis Thomas Achille, a cousin of Jeanne Nardal. He was born in Martinique in 1909. In 1926, he came to study in Paris at the Louis le Grand High School with Leopold Sedar Senghor and Georges Pompidou (past presidents of Senegal and France respectively). Achille first heard Negro spirituals as a young boy in Martinique. He then heard the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Roland Hayes when he was a student in Paris. In 1932, after his studies in Paris, Louis Thomas Achille studied and taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and in Atlanta, Georgia (Lovell 1972, 549). During his stay in the United Sates, he acquired an extensive and deep familiarity with African American religious musical forms. Upon his return to France in the late 1940s, Achille became a teacher of English in a high school near the city of Lyons. He spent his entire teaching career there and for decades trained choirs in and around Lyons to sing spirituals in English.

Louis Thomas Achille was a devout Roman Catholic who saw nothing wrong with his activities as an organizer and director of choirs interpreting spirituals. In his writings (esp. 1956, 229-234), he compared the impact of jazz and the spirituals and noted that the spirituals had spread throughout the world but much more slowly than had been the case with jazz music. He studied the "deeper and more limited penetration" of the spirituals first in the United States and then in France. In the United States the spirituals had acquired "a permanence and a fecundity" because these songs had maintained a relationship with the present. The "modem" spirituals, according to Achille, are less numerous than the "classic" spirituals, whose number he estimated as between six and seven hundred.[16] Achille believed hindrances to the development and growth of the spirituals stemmed from several sources, one of which was the rejection of the "songs of servitude" after Emancipation.

As for the "implantation" of the spiritual in Europe, Achille mentions the early Black choirs and soloists who revealed to Europeans the "rare beauty" of the spirituals. This slow process accelerated after World War II in France. Before 1945, Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Jules Bledsoe, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the Hampton Institute Choir were among those who had performed in France. In the years following the end of the war, new singers, new records, and new radio broadcasts helped the diffusion of African American religious music in France. Movies such as The Green Pastures and Hallelujah also played a significant role in this diffusion.

Simultaneously, French religious choirs looked outside their usual repertoire for "more exotic programs" and found the spirituals. There was also a strong desire to orient prayer toward livelier forms. In this respect Negro spirituals brought both an "exotic spice" and a "new food" to be added to Roman Catholic and Protestant spirituality. However, Achille saw the creation of spirituals in France as a "delicate and difficult enterprise" because most of these spirituals were sung in English and because of the specific rhythmic and harmonic techniques required for effective performance. One reproach that Achille addresses to some French choir leaders is their transformation of the specific African American characteristics of the spiritual into a form similar to classical religious choir music, thus erasing their distinctiveness. He criticizes those who want to "Cartesianize" the spirituals into a European musical form instead of retaining their original African American character (Achille 1956, 232).

The religious message of the spirituals was usually transferred into their new forms in France. Achille objected to translation of the lyrics because "instead of religious songs they become simple poems with a refrain." He then mentioned his own choir, the Park Glee Club (founded in 1948), who transmitted "orally and directly" the spiritual tradition. Achille pushed the singers in his choir to try new harmonies, and if he found new and interesting harmonies, he incorporated them into the choir's repertoire. He even mentioned the composition of a "French spiritual" (with lyrics in English, however) inspired by the Montgomery, Alabama, bus incident that launched the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Achille 1956, 233-234). Other French choirs also specialized in spirituals. Achille noted Les Compagnons du Jourdain, a quartet from Paris composed of three Protestants and one Catholic who sang spirituals learned either directly from African American performers or from recordings. Achille's role in the introduction and implantation of spirituals in France was important. He toiled ceaselessly until his death in 1994. He was much more focused on spirituals than on gospel and considered the latter as a modern musical form, more closely related to popular performance than to religious experience. His own origins, his many publications, and his constant defense of African American religious music have made him a key figure in the history of the transfer of the spiritual from America to France

The 1930s saw the recording of gospel tunes by American artists in France as well as the recordings of spirituals and gospel songs by a handful of French artists. When the American bandleader Willie Lewis came to France in the 1930s with his musicians (Willie Lewis and His Entertainers), they recorded several tunes with French singers (Joan Warner, for example). In 1935 in Paris they recorded two spirituals, "Ezekiel" and "Who'll Be A Witness." Among the French singers who recorded in the 1930s and early 1940s was Achille himself, who recorded "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" accompanied by an orchestra under the direction of Roger Guttinger in April 1934 (Lumen XC 124). Bruce Boyce recorded "Run, Mary, Run / Didn't It Rain" and "Wade in the Water" in November 1935 (Ultraphone, reissued as Vogue LP 425019). Hugues Cuenod recorded "O Lord What a Momin'" in 1935,[11] Arlette Deguil recorded "Go Down Moses" and "Deep River" accompanied by Jacques Metehen's orchestra (Pathe PD 165), and Madeleine Martinetti recorded "Steamboat Song" and "Deep River" with a piano accompaniment by Margaret Azais (Columbia LF 238). Though these recordings were issued, their popular impact is hard to gauge. What is certain is that these performers did not record more gospel or spiritual records in the 1930s. Whether this was due to the unimpressive sales of their first recordings or to the artists' own choice has not been ascertained. What must be kept in mind, however, is that during the 1930s and early 1940s in France the owners of record players belonged to the financially well-off sections of French society. By the end of the 1930s, African American music was present in France and had undergone a significant diffusion among the bourgeois sections of the society of the times. But one form of African American music had not yet arrived in France to any significant degree. The blues was mentioned, but it had few devotees and few records were available.

By the end of the 1930s, a fair number of French people knew about jazz and some of its performers, whether African American or French, and a smaller number of these jazz enthusiasts were more sharply focused on blues. However, this focus on blues was more specifically an interest in a "blue" jazz (whether the music of classic blues singers or "blue" tunes by jazz musicians) instead of a deep interest in the "folk," "country," or "Mississippi Delta" blues as such.

As had its predecessor, World War II would bring African American soldiers to France, and some of them stayed for a significantly longer period of time than soldiers had spent there during World War I. The presence of Black soldiers in the U.S. Army in France after the war was a significant factor in the growth of the interest in the blues among French listeners. I have interviewed Jacques Demetre several times and have heard him mention that in the late 1940s and the early 1950s he regularly attended concerts at U.S. Army bases near Paris, where he heard blues musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy (1998). He also underlined that these contacts contributed significantly to his desire to go to the United States and see how the blues musicians lived in their own country. In 1957, Demetre and Marcel Chauvard visited New York, Detroit, and Chicago. They were among the first Europeans to explore the ghetto and contact many blues artists, who were often flabbergasted to learn that these two Frenchmen knew about their recordings (Danchin 1994).

The music from the Delta was rarely encountered in France in the 1930s, and when the artists performing jazz or blues were from the region, the fact was seldom mentioned. For the French audiences who listened to them, these Black musicians represented a completely new and unheard music whose attraction was often strong and deep whether at a secular or at a religious level. The music of artists from the Delta was thus present in France during the 1930s, but it would be necessary to wait until the 1950s to see the Delta blues really arrive there.[12]

1 For a recent literary treatment of this situation, see Johnson 1998.

2 The essay by Ernest Ansermet, "Sur un orchestre negre," was originally published in Revue Romande in 1919. It was reproduced in Jazz Hot in 1938.

3 Andre Shaeffner's book was republished in 1988.

4 The 1930 Columbia catalog (p. 1939) lists Clara Smith, "Get On Board / Livin' Humble" (Columbia 8938).

5 This record was reviewed in the magazine Jazz Tango Dancing 18 (March 1932): 15.

6 This radio program was mentioned in Jazz Tango Dancing 27 (Dec. 1932): 10.

7 The reference to Bessie Smith in this article appears to be the first time that the name of the artist appeared in the French press.

8 The first article about Count Basie in Jazz Hot appeared in issue number 30 (Feb.-March 1939): 3.

9 The records are Johnson's Vocalion 03475 and Weldon's Vocalion 03464. See Jazz Hot 18 (June-July 1937). Other records mentioned in 1937 include Robert Johnson's Vocalion 03519, and Vocalion 03563. Casey Bill Weldon's records are Vocalion 03561, Vocalion 03601, and Vocalion 03592, mentioned in Jazz Hot 19 (Aug.-Sept. 1937).

10 From an advertisement poster communicated by Pr. Robert Sacra, University of Liege, Belgium. I would like to thank Pr. Sacre for his help in securing a copy of this document.

11 This recording remained unissued until its publication on Prima Voce Party, Nimbus Records NI 7839 (1992).

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    1. Yes, the third paragraph is about all that.


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