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“When I First Got Ready For the War,” a song of World War I

This is one of two articles, each focusing on one ethnographic recording of an African American song of World War I. To read the article about “Trench Blues” select here.

African American man playing a guitar.

Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, playing the guitar. This was taken when he was singing the ballad “Batson” for John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana in 1934. Photo by Alan Lomax. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00342

African Americans left to serve in World War I, beginning one hundred years ago in June 1917, landing in France on June 25. They had high hopes that their service would improve their lot and that of their families. They wanted to show the United States what African Americans could accomplish. As it turned out, most were recruited for support jobs, as the Army had doubts that African Americans were capable as soldiers. But some were selected for segregated infantry and an elite few were trained as officers, as it was thought that African American soldiers should be led by one of their own. Some troops were also put in service with French units as the French were more accepting of soldiers with African heritage.

“When I First Got Ready for the War” tells a story from the point of view of a soldier going off on this adventure to serve his country. It is an autobiographical story of the singer, Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, that he composed with another soldier he refers to at the end — the name sounds like “Emmet.”  The other performers are Charles Gobert (banjo) and Octave Amos (violin).

As the United States changed its policy of peaceful non-involvement in World War I to declare war and begin drafting soldiers in the spring of 1917, those leaving their homes to head into the battlefield along with their families were understandably overcome with many emotions. It is these emotions that Wilson Jones most strikingly conveys in his song.

There have been a number of people moved by the five archival recordings that John and Alan Lomax made of Wilson Jones, so there have been some efforts to find out who he was. Unfortunately there were several people named Wilson Jones in Louisiana in 1917.[1] It is thought that he was one of the younger men by that name who registered for the draft that year. Further research with the few clues we have might yet find this Wilson Jones, or perhaps one of our readers might recognize him. But as it stands, I cannot verify that Wilson Jones served in combat in World War I as his song says. I am inclined to believe him, but I would very much like to see his service record. What I can say is that although there may be some embellishment in this song in the cause of good storytelling, the basic facts of the story do not conflict with what we do know of the service of African American infantry men in the war.

In the beginning of the song he says goodbye to his family, thinking that he might not ever see them again. But he goes to train at Camp Pike, Arkansas, and promises to fight for their sake. He takes a ship he calls “Uncle Sam” across the ocean with everyone afraid of the German submarines that might attack the ship.[2] This was indeed a great fear, and the Germans attacking shipping was one of the reasons that the United States was persuaded to enter the war. He lands in France, and says that when he and his comrades were given their rifles and walked on the firing line the German soldiers surrendered.

African American troops with rifles and bayonettes and carrying the United States flag surround German soldiers who hold their hands up in surrender. Abraham Lincoln looks down on them from the sky. Text beside the soldiers reads "Colored Men: the first to plant our flag on the firing line." Text on the image of Lincoln reads "Liberty and freedom shall not perish. A. Lincoln."

True Sons of Freedom,” a recruiting poster celebrating the achievements of African Americans in World War I. The text on the left reads: “Colored Men: the first who planted our flag on the firing line.” Charles Gustrine, 1918. Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02426

The last part of the story may seem a little farfetched. It is described so quickly that we do not have a lot of details to learn exactly what happened. The song says that they were given their rifles in France, this is interesting in that the men in the 93rd Infantry Division, who served with the French troops, had their American rifles taken away from them and replaced with French rifles. The 93rd included draftees from the south like Jones, so it is possible that he was one of these soldiers. One of the things that the African American infantry were credited with was the taking of prisoners. For example, part of the 93rd Division that served in the French 157th Infantry Division were officially commended by General Goybet for, among many other achievements, taking nearly 600 prisoners in nine days. I would like to know if Jones is singing about a particular battle because I suspect that there is a much larger story there.

The last line of the song, which I hear as “The Germans begin to put their hands up in the air holler ‘Lord, what Colored people have done,'” is not something the prisoners would actually have said.[3] But I see this as a sort of moral to the story, rather than a quotation. The story is of African Americans rising to the challenge of the war and doing more than anyone expected of them. They arrived when the French desperately needed troops and were critical in turning the tide of the war in France. Many of them returned to the United States as decorated veterans. Unfortunately many in the United States were not ready for this story. African Americans were exposed to new ideas and experiences as a  result of the war. Having served in France, they found a country that was more tolerant than their own. So they were more determined than ever to achieve greater equality. But after the war there was a backlash against African Americans that further held them back. World War I was an important moment for change, but that change came about much more slowly than the optimistic young soldiers could have imagined.

Notes

  1. Joshua Caffery is one of the scholars who has tried to track down the identity of Wilson Jones. See his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 2013, pp. 217-218.
  2. Calling the ship “Uncle Sam” may have arisen out of the United States war propaganda of the time, such this poster for the film Ships for Uncle Sam by Joseph Pennell, 1917, (Prints and Photographs Division) and this song “Uncle Sam’s Ships” by Daisy Erd, 1917 (sheet music, Music Division).
  3. See Joshua Caffery’s Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, pp. 221-222 for a transcript and discussion of this song. He hears the last line a bit differently than I do, so I invite you to listen closely and form your own opinion.

Resources

Barton, Matt, “World War I,” Now See Hear!, August 7, 1914. An article featuring early commercial  recordings related to the Great War.

Hall, Stephanie, “Songs and Music of Refugees of the First World War,” Folklife Today, June 23, 2015.

Hall, Stephanie, “‘Trench Blues’: An African American Song of World War I,” Folklife Today, November 23, 2016.

Harris, Megan, “Commemorating World War I,” Folklife Today, April 8, 2014.

John and Alan Lomax Louisiana 1934, a presentation of recordings from the collections of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, by Joshua Caffery.

Reft, Ryan, “World War I: The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” Library of Congress Blog, September 28, 2016.

Scott, Emmett J., Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, Homewood Press, 1919. Made available online by the California Digital Library.

World War I (Library of Congress) a portal to exhibits and events related to the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

World War I: Echos of the Great War (Library of Congress, Veterans History Project). Find this and additional online presentations through this page.

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