Distant Voices

Write Me A Letter...

Dear Fred

The myth of Louis Armstrong (Vol_2 No_8 Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) as Uncle Tom-the-Trumpeter has become a very fashionable one, particularly as taught in today’s university cultural studies programs. Truth be told, he did not begin to caricature himself in his later years; even as a young man he was always ready to clown and mug his way through the second-rate Tin Pan Alleys songs his manager Glazer put in front of him. The words to those banal tunes of the 1920s and 30s which he recorded with his band are now forgotten whereas Hello Dolly is not.

As always, even the worst of this pap was redeemed by his joyous singing and superb playing. As he grew older, Armstrong had the usual brass player’s problems with embouture and he played his instrument less and less. (Not that he wanted to, surely, but because he couldn’t.)

To my mind, the image of the happy-go-lucky grinning darkie he chose to present to a white man’s world is no less offensive than the violence-inspiring, misogynistic ravings of today’s gangsta rappers. Neither image, yesterday’s compliant slave nor today’s rebel with a cause, will ever do African-Americans justice.

Norman Schwartz

Abu Dhabi

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