Louis Armstrong once told the United States Government to go to hell.
What, you didn’t know that? Does it surprise you?
It might, if you think of Louis Armstrong as just the guy with the big wide grin and the gruff voice who had a big hit with “Hello Dolly’ and an even bigger hit – once in his lifetime and once posthumously – with ‘What A Wonderful World.’ And it’s not a bad thing if that’s how you think of Louis Armstrong. It’s just that you’d only be capturing a very small part of who the great Satchmo was, and what he was all about.
You see, Louis Armstrong, in his own unique way, was a civil rights pioneer. And it’s important for people to know that. It’s especially important for people like us, who call ourselves progressives, to know that this great man not only spoke out against racial injustice, but he did so loudly and proudly, doubled down on it, took hell for it, and emerged from it victoriously. He needs to be recognized as an important contributor to the advancement of the cause of civil rights for African-American people in the United States of America in the 1950’s and beyond.
Louis Armstrong had already revolutionized music. It’s fair to say that without Louis Armstrong, there would be no such thing as swing. Satchmo was not only a virtuoso instrumentalist – other trumpeters stood in awe of his mastery – but he brought something to music that nobody else did. He gave the music an element that can be described as freedom. Joyous, beautiful, swinging freedom. Jazz would never be the same after he came along. And perhaps most importantly, he managed to break through the barrier of race in the United States. He was loved and admired by black AND white musicians and music lovers. This was, in the parlance of our times, (thank you, Mr. Biden) a big f**in’deal.
By 1957, Armstrong was a bona fide star and considered the ambassador of goodwill for his country, as he traveled the world, bringing that joyous, spirited music of freedom known as Jazz to millions of fans around the world. In their eyes (and ears), he WAS America. He WAS freedom. That smile, that joyous demeanor, the sound of that trumpet, these things represented the best that America had to offer the world.
Everybody loved Louis.
So then, how did this man, who represented the government around the world, find himself at odds with that very government? By demanding that it grant black people the very freedom he represented to his adoring fans in every country he traveled to.
In a most unfortunate affair that would come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine’ incident, Arkansas’ racist Governor Orval Faubus sent armed national guards to a high school to prevent little black children from entering a newly integrated school. Pops, as he was affectionately known, caught wind of it, and was outraged. He told a reporter “The way they’re treating my people in the south, the government can go to hell.”
It’s important to understand the impact of this. By the time of this incident, Armstrong was seen by some as being, shall we say, a bit passé. Jazz had changed, and would continue to change. The bebop revolution of the 1940’s had changed the music from being mostly for entertainment and dancing to something to sit down and listen to intently. The civil rights movement was gaining influence and being reflected in the music. Louis’s style was seen as being from a different time. And many musicians were critical of Louis, even going as far as calling him an Uncle Tom.
Louis shocked ‘em all, or at least he shocked those who didn’t understand the depth of his character. He shocked a lot of people by speaking truth so bluntly to power, but he stood by it and did not back down one bit. And he emerged victoriously, returning to the road, bringing the sound of jazz and freedom to music lovers everywhere until he died. And his music still brings that joy to the world today. Pops is still swingin’.
So the next time you listen to ‘What a Wonderful World’ and hear that gruff voice, or see a picture of him with that big, wide grin, remember that the gruff voice spoke out against injustice. The next time you see that smiling face, remember that behind the smile was someone as serious about civil rights as any other important figure in American history. We thank you, Mr, Armstrong.