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Sheet Music Spotlight: Shrapnel Blues Edition

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The following is a guest post from retired Senior Music Cataloger Sharon McKinley.

African Americans have served in the armed forces of the American colonies and the United States since the North American continent began to be settled by Europeans and black slaves and freedmen arrived here. Blacks served in militias and the Continental Army, as well as in the Navy. World War I saw a large number of African Americans eager to serve in the Army, but most were only allowed to provide support services, and in segregated units. It’s a long and complicated story, but one fact stands out in the history of popular music and the war: everyone wanted to hear songs of encouragement and praise, and of service, love and longing. Song could serve to make a point or simply to entertain.

"The Shrapnel Blues: fox trot song" by Marion Lee Bell and Marcus F. Slayter (1919).
“The Shrapnel Blues: fox trot song” by Marion Lee Bell and Marcus F. Slayter (1919). Music Division, Library of Congress.

World War I music in the United States was written for a wide variety of audiences in any style one might imagine. A lot of pieces were published after the war had ended, in part because we were in the war for a relatively short time, and all that music had an audience to reach. The African-American population was eager for music celebrating their own heroes.

The Shrapnel Blues, by Marcus F. Slayter and Marion Lee Bell, was registered for copyright in May of 1919. In July of that year, it also appeared in the Half-century Magazine, which was published for Chicago’s African-American community.

The version owned by the Library, self-published in Chicago by Slayter and Bell, is a bit unusual among the Library’s thousands of pieces of WWI sheet music in that it is specifically dedicated to an African-American military unit and features a handsome, debonaire black soldier on the cover. It is targeted directly to its audience with that cover photo and its dedication “… to officers and men of the Old 8th Regt,” that is, the 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard. The antecedents of the unit were formed in the 1870s; the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment itself was constituted in 1898. After several permutations, it became the 370th Infantry during World War I and was assigned to the 185th Infantry Brigade, part of the famed 93rd Division, one of only two African-American combat divisions in the US Army at that time. They were decorated heroes, and of course came back to a hero’s welcome in their communities.

Marcus F. Slayter was a seasoned vaudeville performer who served in France. The song features vaudeville-style ragged rhythms and humorous, somewhat cryptic lyrics, which would appeal to a broad audience. The thought of a quartet singing in a dugout being interrupted as incoming shrapnel hammers on the door is indeed humorous; the second verse’s enemy sniper is a lot less funny. But the overall feel of the music itself is of catchy entertainment rather than of drama. Read more about it and other African-American World War I songs in the sources below.

"Machine Gun Co., Chicago Regiment of Colored Soldiers, 8th Illinois Infantry," January 24, 1920. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
“Machine Gun Co., Chicago Regiment of Colored Soldiers, 8th Illinois Infantry,” January 24, 1920. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Sources consulted:

In her article, “Voices of a nation: reflections of World War I in American magazine music,” Bonny H. Miller discusses this piece, as well as other songs written by African Americans.

Voices of a nation: reflections of World War I in American magazine music, The Bulletin of the Society for American music, Vol. XXVI, No. 2/3 Summer/Fall 2000, p. 41 Bonny H. Miller

Old 8th Regiment history

McCard, Harry Stanton; Turnley, Henry (1899). “History of the Eighth Illinois United States Volunteers.” Chicago: E. F. Harman & Co.;view=1up;seq=5

General Information on African Americans in the military

Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI by Jami Bryan

Comments (2)

  1. I love that you did this. Thanks.
    In your opening paragraph where you summarize the service of blacks in us military history, a mention of their major contributions in combat and support roles in the Civil War might also be mentioned.
    Thanks again, keep it up.
    Bill W.

  2. The service of African Americans dates to at least 1527 and the Narváez expedition, almost a century earlier than the landing at Plymouth Rock.

    In the history of music, however, it’s hard to beat the 369th U.S. Infantry “Harlem Hell Fighters” band, generally credited with bringing jazz to Paris. Led by James Reese Europe, the band included Noble Sissle, with whom he wrote “All of No Man’s Land is Ours”.

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