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Promotin’ the General Welfare

Born on the Fourth of July

There was something magical when everyone began Louis Armstrong’s story with, “He was born on the Fourth of July.”  


More than the symbolic birth of the United States, that Louis Armstrong was said to be born on that day and eventually became America’s great cultural ambassador: there was something quintessentially American about that whole myth.  


Even now, when I think of the Fourth, the first image I see is that of Satchmo and all the hurt and heart that filled his fantastic smile.


The idea of Louis Armstrong took a good beating along the way. Many folks felt strongly that Satchmo did way too much “tomming” for their tastes, which suggests, possibly, that some of our brethren and sistren were not so receptive to the idea of that “smiling face”: that was not a visage of acquiescence so much as it was an essential formality, an agreement not to reveal the truth or tell on you, as we used to say, at any given moment.


I loved Louis Armstrong because he was from New Orleans, and I loved the idea that a Black man from New Orleans could come to represent the beauty and horror of America all rolled into one without saying a word about it.




Because anyone who truly knew what the music and the message was all about knew for all the sugarcoating, this was music come up from the fields and floorboards, fashioned by folks who were all but forgotten by their American overlords and seen only as necessary to the cause of growing this nation along.


The tragicomic beauty of Louis Armstrong’s compromise not to tell on them could never be embodied by Jelly Roll Morton, who told way too many truths about making a living the American Way, aka hustlin’. Jelly Roll was jazz’s P.T. Barnum to some extent, just as brilliant in his songwriting and sales pitch but a bit too much of the wink and nod for some folks to remain sweet and innocent.  


The secret was safe with Satchmo. He wouldn’t dare violate the pact.


Things like the Constitution come to mind every time the 4th of July rolls around. And that’s a bit problematic for a kid who spent his early Catholic years trying hard to obey some pretty unfair laws, though if you had any sense and wished to survive, you made do and did the right thing.


Along the way through the 20th century, not every member of the Black race was willing to walk the path Satchmo set, and they didn’t have to because he did it for them. Those who followed him challenged openly and often, and somehow did not see that this American experiment was all about embracing each aspect of the Dream. Some shouted. Some yelled. Some cried. Some screamed. Some burned the place down. And some sang with all the might and majesty of their souls and sounds. They, too, sang America, and somehow his was so exalted: the most memorable, most majestic, most loved voice around the world.


I’m sure he knew the criticisms. I’m sure he knew well the failure of the Dream for many of his ilk, that unfairness persisted as when he came home to reign as King Zulu only to confront the same ole segregation and its attending sadness and cruelty.  


He didn’t let those sorrows sadden his song, though. He kept on singing and playing, continued on as that bright and shiny symbol of what was possible in America if America just gave you the chance, even when America didn’t want to give you that chance.


Behind him came so many others whose genius flowered and powers flourished and fleshed out this great American art which rose from humble riverbanks, not from the hallowed halls of the academy.  


And along with him rose a legion of other great voices from the grasslands and heartland, wilderness and wild blue yonder: the many who gave America a splendor in voice, purpose, and passion.  


They brought this idea to life and lit up the airwaves: not the sound of a Shining City on a Hill, but the Clang and Clamor of the Streets – the minstrel, the vaudeville, the blues, the sass, the jazz.


So, my Fourths of July will always start not with the storied images of Founding Fathers fashioning a document for the ages, but of those founding men and women whose lives on the streets of cities like ours embodied the possibilities suggested therein by that famous Constitution.


My Fourths of July begin with the image of a Black child playing cornet in the Colored Waifs Home band, rising and never relenting until he showed the world what it means to miss New Orleans and the dirty low-down bump-n-grind of sweat, spirit, soul, and mind – a sound the higher-ups tried to kill or set aside, but just like the incomparable Josephine, you can’t keep a beautiful thing down. Once it hit the airwaves and the world got a taste, there was no denying it, no turning back.  


And as America does so well, they stole it up, called it the Jazz Age, and marketed it as all the rage. They tried to shut it down when they killed Storyville, but you ain’t keepin’ a good thing quiet for long. Like any good virus, it just moved on to the next place to find a home.  


Buddy Bolden might’ve been the John the Baptist of New Orleans Jazz, but Louis Armstrong was the Savior of this nation. America didn’t know it yet, but when She needed him most, he was gonna be there to comfort and convince her people this was a beautiful thing they were all about, even though some of us were shut out. He gave the rest of us hope that one day they’d hand us some rope as a means upward not merely for some horrific act.  


And America should thank him every day for not giving the secret way, no matter how sour and bittersweet it was to be an American for the rest of us who weren’t seen as so American by some.  


Others came later to make that case – Medgar, Malcolm, Martin, Baldwin. Meanwhile, don’t forget: Louis let us in on the real deal way back when. Remember when he sang Fats Waller’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?”, he was letting us know back then. Before Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Louis and Fats sketched that unseen soul.


Louis embraced the hurt and put it on display for us to contemplate. Some considered it a trifle, but the others knew. Louis wasn’t letting America off the hook: they were just reading from a different book.  


Louis lived long enough to see change ushered in – flawed, imperfect change, not doubt, but change nonetheless.


I still remember watching him sing the theme song from “Hello, Dolly!” as a kid. Years later, the showmanship, the exuberance, even onscreen, came through. But to my ears, his rah-rah vibin’ sounded like he was singing a song about America:  


“Well Hello, Dolly! Hello, Dolly! It’s so nice to have you back where you belong! You’re looking swell, Dolly. We can tell, Dolly. You’re still growing, you’re still glowing, you’re still going strong! We feel the room swaying for the band’s playing one of your ole favorite songs from way back when. So, take her wrap fellas! Find her an empty lap fellas! Dolly I’ll never go away again!”


And there it is: the pact. For those of us left out of the Dream: we can fancy leaving, but this is home, no? Why should we have to go elsewhere to be our authentic selves?  


I’m sure the songwriters never intended such a reading, but all these years later, to think of Satchmo singing those words, like a recap of this country’s history in a few short bars: its resilience and that of its citizens despite the struggles, the troubles, the hates, hurts, and hardships.  


Oh, I know: it’s too much. I’ve gone on way too long, waxing rhapsodic about Louis Armstrong. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it, don’t feel it. I see more of America and its possibilities in his life than I trust the words and ideas and laws folks like to throw around these days on their way to making America great again, or so they say. We’ll see. In the meantime, I have the sound of Satchmo to comfort me. Louis told the truth. “What Did I Do to be So Black and Blue?” Nothing, nothing at all. We were just born this way. Americans, that is. And it ain’t all perfect, but it’s all we got. Each other. Happy 4th of July!  


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.


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