Louis Armstrong and the civil rights movement

Sam Smith – Louis Armstrong, given his great popularity among whites, would, from time to time, come under criticism for not doing more for civil rights. Ben Schwartz in the New Yorker sheds some interesting light on this in a new article, including Armstrong’s response for not having taken part in a protest march:

“My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn … They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”

In fact, musicians vary markedly in their activism and often express it in their own most familiar language: music. For example, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a song about lynching, became popular more than a decade before the modern civil rights movement. And we forget that musicians on the road in integrated bands were among those who ran most directly into the walls of segregation. It was, for example, one reason Armstrong didn’t return to New Orleans for years.

And then there are the stories, that get missed, like this one in Schwartz’ article:

One example, of too many, came when Armstrong was arrested by the Memphis Police Department in 1931. His crime? He sat next to his manager’s wife, a white woman, on a bus. Armstrong and his band were thrown in jail as policemen shouted that they needed cotton pickers in the area. Armstrong’s manager got him out in time to play his show the next evening. When he did play, Armstrong dedicated a song to the local constabulary, several of whom were in the room, then cued the band to play “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Old Rascal You.” The band stiffened, expecting another night in jail, or worse. Instead, he scatted so artfully that, afterward, the cops on duty actually thanked him. Armstrong most likely never quit smiling that night. His subversive joke was not understood by anyone except the African-Americans in his band.

Schwartz also writes:

Armstrong chose his battles carefully. In September, 1957, seven months after the bombing attempt in Knoxville, he grew strident when President Eisenhower did not compel Arkansas to allow nine students to attend Little Rock Central High School. As [Terry] Teachout recounts in “Pops,” here Armstrong had leverage, and spoke out. Armstrong was then an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Armstrong stated publicly that Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts.” He told one reporter, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” His comments made network newscasts and front pages, and the A.P. reported that State Department officials had conceded that “Soviet propagandists would undoubtedly seize on Mr. Armstrong’s words.”….

When Eisenhower did force the schools to integrate, Armstrong’s tone was friendlier. “Daddy,” he telegrammed the President, “You have a good heart.”

Unmentioned by Schwartz is an example of Armstrong, like Holiday and other musicians, helping to frame an issue well before political activists. Here are the lyrics to “Black and Blue,” written by Fats Waller in 1929 and later an Armstrong standard:

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feels like ol’ Ned wished I was dead
What did I do to be so black and blue

Even the mouse ran from my house
They laugh at you and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue

I’m white inside but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face

How would it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue

How would it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue

It was a song, incidentally, that helped turn me, then a young white high school student in the segregationist 1950s, not only on to jazz, but towards the civil rights movement when it arrived a few years later.

Music can work like that.

Black and Blue

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