Monday, February 28, 2011

The Poor Thing

Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable, “The Poor Thing,” begins:

         There was a man in the islands who fished for his bare bellyful and took his life in his hands to go forth upon the sea between four planks. But though he had much ado, he was merry of heart; and the gulls heard him laugh when the spray met him. And though he had little lore, he was sound of spirit; and when the fish came to his hook in the mid-waters, he blessed God without weighing. But he was bitter poor in goods and bitter ugly of countenance, and he had no wife.

A spirit visits him and the man asks him his name and his business, to which the spirit replies: “My name, is not yet named, and my nature not yet sure...and I wait until you have a wife, and then shall I be in your son, and a brave part of him, rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf...where the ring closes and the blows are going.”
         “This is a marvellous thing to hear,” said the man; “and if you are indeed to be my son, I fear it will go ill with you; for I am bitter poor in goods and bitter ugly in face, and I shall never get me a wife if I live to the age of eagles.”

But the spirit, who is also called The Poor Thing, promises to remedy this. He convinces the man to follow him to a deadcairn and incites the man to ask the ancestors to “give you the virtue they withheld.”
And so he does, but the spirits of the dead are not pleased: “But what virtue have we? what power? or what jewel here in the dust with us, that any living man should covet or receive it? for we are less than nothing. But we tell you one thing, speaking with many voices like bees, ...[go] forth into life and fear not, for so did we all in the ancient ages.”
         “Now,” said the Poor Thing, “they have told you a lesson, but make them give you a gift. Stoop your hand among the bones without drawback, and you shall find their treasure.”
         So the man stooped his hand, and the dead laid hold upon it many and faint like ants; but he shook them off, and behold, what he brought up in his hand was the shoe of a horse, and it was rusty.
         “It is a thing of no price,” quoth the man, “for it is rusty.”
         “We shall see that,” said the Poor Thing; ‘for in my thought it is a good thing to do what our fathers did, and to keep what they kept without question. And in my thought one thing is as good as another in this world; and a shoe of a horse will do.”

The man sets out to find a wife. The Poor Thing accompanies him to find the woman who will be his mother. This woman is the Earl’s daughter. She asks him why he carries a rusty horseshoe that he claims has no value. She reasons that if he carries it, it must have value and, therefore, she want to buy it. She finds it hard to believe he will not sell it.
         “Come...sell me this for I am sure it is a thing of price.”
         “Nay,” said the man, “the thing is not for sale.”
         “What!” cried the Earl’s daughter “Then what make you here in the town’s market, with the thing in your reel and nought beside?”
         “I sit here,” says the man, “to get me a wife.”
         “There is no sense in any of these answers,” thought the Earl’s daughter; “and I could find it in my heart to weep.”

The Earl enters; the conversation goes back and forth. Father and daughter, perplexed that the man will not sell the rusty horseshoe, wonder at his insistence to marry the woman. The man persists, repeating, “one thing is as good as another in this world.” He convinces the Earl, but the woman, who has turned away many suitors, is not swayed because he is so bitter ugly.
         “Bitter ugly am I,” said the man, “and you as fair as May. Bitter ugly I am, and what of that? It was so my fathers—“
         “In the name of God,” said the Earl’s daughter, “let your father be!”
         “If I had done that,” said the man, “you had never been chaffering with me here in the market not your father the Earl watching with the end of his eye.”
         “But come,” quoth the Earl’s daughter, “and tell me why I should marry.”
         “Listen and look,” said the man.
         Now the wind blew through the Poor Thing like an infant crying, so that her heart was melted; and her eyes were unsealed, and she was aware of the thing as it were a babe unmothered, and she took it to her arms, and it melted in her arms like the air.
         “Come,” said the man, “behold a vision of our children, the busy hearth, and the white heads. And let that suffice, for it is all God offers.”
         “I have no delight in it,” said she; but with that she sighed.
         “And what shall we do with the horseshoe?” quoth she.
         “I will give it to your father,” said the man; ‘and he make a kirk and a mill of it for me.”
         It came to pass in time that the Poor Thing was born; but memory of these matters slept within him, and he knew not that which he had done. But he was a part of the eldest son’ rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf, skilful to direct the helm, and a man of might where the ring closes and the blows are going.

So ends the fable. A friend gave me this story because she knows I admire Robert Louis Stevenson. “The Poor Thing” came as part of a larger treasure. It appears in Zen in English Literature by R.H. Blyth, a book she has owned since 1959. Inside the front cover is a small red and black sticker with a chop and the words, Imported by Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland VT. Its absolute value would be the same in a volume of Stevenson’s short stories, but I would read it differently.

Is the “poor thing” the object, the rusty horseshoe or the spirit residing in the ancestor who becomes the son? Is it both? Blyth addresses the object: “the absolute value of everything; all things have equal value, for all have infinite value. If you like this kind of mystical truth and can swallow it easily, well and good. If not, it does not matter, because it is only ordinary common sense. The value of a thing is in its use, as Robinson Crusoe found out with regard to the pieces-of-gold on his desert island. It’s no good playing the cello to a thirsty man...You may protest that things differ at least in their potential value; a drawing by Claude is not equal in value to a grain of sand. It may well be so. The financial, the artistic, the moral values may differ: the point is that the absolute value is the same. If you see infinity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower where is the necessity for anything else? Everything depends on the mind of man:
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. So when the man was asked what was the use of his rusty horse-shoe, he answered, “It is of no use.”

Okay, everything depends on the mind. But perhaps the mind of someone born poor (someone we might call a “poor thing” because of his or her spirit) is more elastic. That is, a poor person sees more readily that one thing is as good as another. Eating, staying warm, sleeping in a bed, that’s what life boils down to. Everything may depend on the mind but the body, especially the body of a poor child, gauges the absolute value of the object in terms of survival. That often translates to use.

Louis Armstrong was born poor. He told and retold the story of his early life in New Orleans in his writings, in interviews, on his tapes. He made the hardships palpable and entertaining. He thrived scrounging, training that equipped him to live on the road, deal with all sorts of people, and set his boundaries. Armstrong knew how to work the streets. He had a bit of the Artful Dodger in him.

Born poor does not open the gate to Zen. But born poor creates opportunity for individual of strong character, Armstrong’s forte. Humanity favors the bootstrap puller over the trustafarian. Born rich is blockade, the gate to Zen is not in sight. Perhaps divest thyself is the only path, as in Buddha.

Louis told the same story over and over in his writings. As he grew older, his words and intonation shifted, became more pointed. As did his view of the world. All of his writings are candid, but his last account (1969-1970) is both frank and sly. Reading the excerpt Thomas Brothers includes in Louis Armstrong in His Own Words on the Jewish Family in New Orleans after reading Satchmo My Life in New Orleans (first published 1954) makes the latter sound almost prosaic. Every version is worth reading over and over. It is a trip to the grandparents where you hear the tale of the winter of whatever and the last time the steam engine was turned around in the round house. You hear these stories not twice in five days but ten times, boring when you are young, affirming when you’re old.

The Karnofskys (The Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA) play a large role in Louis’s young life and later in his storytelling. The exact chronology is hard to figure. Brothers makes a solid case for Louis beginning to work for this family in 1907 rag picking and then returning later, 1915, when he works the coal cart with Morris (the father).

“Morris had the coal route in the Red Light District. We used the term—Stone Coal, but I think you will understand better when we say —Hard Coal, which the young white prostitutes used in their Cribs ′one room, to keep warm. They would keep the fire burning in their Grates, by throwing a couple of pieces of hard coal on and dim it down to a mellow burn, so they could stand at the doors of their cribs and work and work, in their Silk Teddies (underwear—Lingerie), calling in the Tricks, as they were called in those days. “Stone coal Lady′ a Nickel a Water Bucket” (coming Morris + I on the little wagon, Morris on One side of the wagon and me on the other). I only could get a quick peep at the girls while they were standing there at the door almost naked.

Stone coal, like the rusted horseshoe, is a poor thing; its absolute value is equal to that of every other thing, “for all have infinite value.” In Armstrong’s story, stone coal has use value and he makes much of its heat. Heat here is a particular kind of warmth; it can be controlled, dimmed down and has a color that throws off a “mellow burn.” It changes the light in the crib and the allure of the prostitutes calling in tricks.

Stone coal converts energy. This is true as well of the rusty horseshoe. “The Poor Thing” ends with the man giving the poor thing to the Earl. He makes it into a kirk and a mill that the man uses. Blyth does not mention this. The meaning of poor thing is unsettled if left at the first step—one thing is as good as another in this world. The rusty horseshoe is an object until the end of the story. But it does not survive as an object, something that might have another life in a museum. For Stevenson, Scots that he was, the rusty horseshoe converts into energy providing buildings in his new life with a wife and a son. The spirit that comes through the son is another part of the poor thing, a coupling of object, use and energy. All with the same absolute value. What remains in revered objects, used but no longer tethered to use? The poor thing gains patina, becomes radiant, burnished through use.

Driving home from Florida last week I stopped to see my friend who lives in Richmond. I had not seen her for two years. This visit she gave me her own poor thing, her grandmother’s meal chest scoop, which she linked long ago to Stevenson’s story.

Here it stands in the snow, but only for a moment. I returned it to its new home on my shelf.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Flee as a Bird

In 1967 L/CPL. Villec, stationed in Vietnam, wrote a letter to Louis Armstrong. Louis wrote him back. I like to imagine the look on L/CPL Villec’s face when he saw THAT return address. The letter to Villec is ten-pages long, handwritten, postmarked 1967, addressed to a F.P.O. in San Francisco.

Villec probably wrote Armstrong to express his own love of jazz. Brothers included the letter in his book, Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, because it is filled with Armstrong’s “direct testimony to the power of music.” This letter is a fine example of Louis’s ability to write the way he speaks, even when writing a stranger. 

The letter begins by connecting music to all parts of daily life, especially ablutions, a highlight for Louis—S, S & S, or, more directly in his parlance: “I’d like to ’step in here for a ’Minute or ’so’ to ”tell you how much—I ′feel to know that ′you are a ′Jazz fan, and ′Dig′ ′that ′Jive—the ′same as ′we ′do, ″yeah.″ ″Man—I carry an ′Album, ′loaded with ′Records—′Long play ′that is. And when I am ′Shaving or ′Sitting on the ′Throne with ′Swiss Kriss in me—That Music ′sure ′brings out those ′Riffs ′Right Along with ′Swiss Kriss, which I ′take ′every night or when I go to bed.”

[Swiss Kriss is an herbal laxative that Louis swore by, took nightly, and, extolling its virtues, gladly gave to everyone he met.]

Louis continues, discusses church music, especially at baptisms and then moves to funeral marches. I’d read the letter several times previously but because I’d just heard “New Orleans Function” on my iPod while walking, I had a new mission. As familiar as this medley is, I’ve never found out WHAT the songs are. In Brothers’s book I found a note in the Annotated Index that states the first section is “Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain,” a sacred song composed by Mary Dana Shindler, c. 1857—Used as a standard dirge by New Orlean brass bands, and recorded by LA and the All Stars as part of the medley “New Orleans Function,” April 1950.

So I went to this letter and found Louis had laid out the songs and order in his commentary. I rambled off to YouTube looking for Louis first and funeral marches second. There’s plenty. An hour passed….after numerous funerals (watch the funeral of Kerwin James, tuba player, and then Louis and the All Stars playing “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” not at a funeral, rather with the All Stars in a performance, looks like Italy) I am back to the main business here, Louis’s letter to Villec. 

On the funeral dirge, he writes:
      P.S. I guess you think I’m ′Nuts. ′Nay ′Nay.′ I only ′mentioned these incidents because it all was ′built around ′Music. In fact, it’s ′All Music. ″You ′Dig? The ′Same as we did in my ′Home Town ′New Orleans′—those ′Funeral Marches etc. ″Why Gate″ ′Villec, we ′played those ′Marches with ′feeling from our ′hearts. ′All the way to the Cemetery—′Brass Band of course. The ′Snare drummer would put a ′handkerchief under the ′snares of his ′drum to ′deaden the ′Sound while ′playing on the way to the Cemetery—Flee as a Bird.” But as ′soon as the ′preacher′ say ″Ashes to ′Ashes—′Dust to ′Dust″—the ″Snare Drummer Commence pulling the handkerchief from his ′drum, and make a ′long roll′ to ′assemble everybody including the members of the ′dead man’s ′Lodge—or ′Club. ′Then we’d ′return ′back to the ′headquarters ′playing ″Didn’t he ′Ramble″ or ″When the Saints Go Marching In.” You ′See: ′Still Music.”
         I said, ′All of that to Keep ′Music in your ′heart the ′same as ′you’re ′doing. And ′Daddy—you ′Can’t ′go ′wrong. ′Myself and my ′All Stars’ are ′Playing here at the ′Harrods ′Club (Reno) for ′Three weeks. My ′wife ′Lucille has ′joined me here. The ′rest will do her lots of good. She was ′operated on for a ′Tumor, about the ′Middle of ′July. She’s improving ′very ′Rapidly. Her ′Doctor who ′who operated on her at the ′Beth Israel Hospital’ in New York told her—′She could go to ′Reno and ′spend some time if ′you (Lucille) + you ′husband (Satchmo) ′promised to ′behave ′yourselves and ′don’t try to ′do the “Vonce” (″meaning  ′Sex). I ′Said—″Doc I promise—But I’ll ′Just touch it  ′lightly every morning—to see if it’s ′still ′there.” ′Ha ′Ha. ′Life’s ′sweet. ′Just the ′thought that ′Lucille is ′through with her ′little ′Hindrance—and ″soon″ be well and ′happy—′be ′her ′lil ol ‘cute ′self′ again—′Just ″knock’s′ me out.[1]

Louis perpetually dropped his sex life into all his talk, and, therefore, his letters. Everything I’ve read about Lucille says she took it in stride, complaining sometimes on the tapes when he’d go on and on, not about her, but sex in general. In another letter, this one to Joe Glaser, written in 1955, Louis discusses paternity payments for a child he fathered in Las Vegas. While the consensus is that the woman’s child was not Louis’s, he wished it so, wanted to acknowledge the child and provide for her. This is a complicated story, perhaps another time. 

[1]Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, Thomas Brothers, ed. (Oxford University Press) 1999, 169, 171, 217.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong

Last post I mentioned that I went to the Louis Armstrong House Museum with Louis’s handkerchiefs on my mind. Just as important, I hoped to meet Ricky Riccardi. I’d found his blog, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, soon after I started mine. Riccardi’s knowledge of Armstrong’s music and life is awesome; actually, it’s intimidating.

A few weeks ago an Amazon ad popped up at the top of his site, What a Wonderful World, Ricky Riccardi. I checked, due out in June. Reading his About Me I learned he’s Project Archivist at LAHM, so I suspected I might run into him. He’s not named on the website and wondered if he worked sequestered in the nether regions never to surface in the reading room.

As it turned out, the Project Archivist’s office is right around the corner. Riccardi introduced himself soon after I arrived. I volunteered that I’d learned much about Armstrong’s music through reading his blog and asked if we might talk later. He agreed and appeared a few hours later. Only thirty, Riccardi, is a fount of knowledge not only on Armstrong but jazz in general. Knowing his graduate degree was from Rutgers’s Institute of Jazz Studies, I wondered what came first, jazz or Louis Armstrong.

“When I was fifteen, I saw The Glenn Miller Story. Hearing “Basin Street Blues” really knocked me out. My mom introduced me to Louis Armstrong’s Sixteen Most Requested Songs and that was it. I was completely hooked. I found Gary Giddins’s Satchmo and that started my journey.”

Riccardi is a fine storyteller, enlivening endless threads from Armstrong’s life into firm fabric. His charm is his humility and complete devotion to Louis Armstrong. Of course, to the maker the trail is not quick or ordained. His thesis on Armstrong at first did not provide much of a lead. After he graduated from Rutgers in 2005 his mentors encouraged him to publish a book on Armstrong’s later years, even helping Riccardi find an agent. He sent his manuscript around for the better part of a year to all the likely publishing firms and received the likely results, a tally of rejections.

Rejection drives one to assessment if not resignation. Riccardi decided to try a new public; he published his first blog post on 07/07/2007. Taking his cue from the random nature of Shuffle, he chose, investigated and wrote about the first song that came up each day.

What’s so wonderful about RR’s blog What a Wonderful World is the depth he dives to tie together the many strands on each song. Because Armstrong recorded his favorites dozens of times following the trail demands arduous research. Riccardi’s gift is that dry discography morphs into an interesting read.

Still, it’s not easy to entice readers to one’s blog even if the subject is Louis Armstrong. I ask Riccardi, “Are they out there waiting for this news?”

 “Just as you’d think, nothing happened. I’d write and wait. No one was reading it far as I could tell. Then one day, about for six months later, an email arrived from Sweden. Then a few more responses from Sweden. This spread quickly to a number of responses from other parts of Europe. I realized the Armstrong audience is greater outside the U.S. than within. Given his incredible presence as Ambassador Satch, this is not hard to understand.”

In 2008 RR was invited to the 8th Annual New Orleans Summer Fest celebration of Louis Armstrong’s birthday on August 4. He delivered the same talk three times, the first time to eight people and the last to full audience. He also rewrote his book proposal and sent it around again. This time within a matter of weeks, Pantheon Press, Random House signed him for What a Wonderful World, Armstrong’s last twenty-five years.

On February 8 Riccardi gave a talk at the LAHM titled “Black and Blue”: Louis Armstrong and Race. Drawn from Armstrong’s recorded tapes (thousands of hours of listening) Riccardi assembled a fleshed out account that affirms Armstrong’s consistency on this issue. Almost everyone knows his position on Little Rock, but very few know the many times he spoke out. Riccardi’s talk is well worth listening to. He’s posted it on his blog, about seven YouTube clips filled with quotes from the tapes. Riccardi frames Louis’s comments in the historical context establishing how often Armstrong was among few blacks to take a stand at the height of controversy.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Cover of brochure created by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Education Department. This pamphlet is an excellent short bio of Louis Armstrong with lists of suggested recordings, readings and addition resources. I found it at the LAHM Archive and brought home a few to give to Stop-Time participating musicians and artists. The bell, the hands, the handkerchief, the cuff links, the white cuffs….and the title Armstrong 101: A Beginner’s Guide, the life course I’m enrolled in.

Tourists, fans, pilgrims travel great distances to house museums. Where else do they stand the chance of finding the essence of the admired personality? Here is Lincoln’s bed or Elvis’s or Louis Armstrong’s. My favorite examination of this phenomenon is Diller and Scofidio’s  Tourism: Suitcase Studies (1991) fifty Samsonite suitcases (all identical, one for each state) open, suspended at eye level, arranged in a 10 x 5 grid. Centered in each suitcase is a postcard, the bed of someone famous or the site of a battlefield. Everything in the exhibition depends on display, careful graphics, precise arrangements that create the dazzling result. This is not about homage but the economics of tourism. The postcard is key not only for its image but the way it is positioned with mirrors to reveal front and back. Also listed is the state’s rank in income from tourism. Beds and battles, what history and money is all about.[1]

So it’s logical that I’d travel to the Louis Armstrong House Museum to find the essence of the person in the material remains. But the archive is equally vital for there you can access materials, sit leisurely, listening or reading, and, best of all, handle them.

I went to the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archive looking for handkerchiefs. I needed an object, a focus, a mission, a start in the hundreds of thousands of papers, photographs, and objects. I chose his handkerchiefs because cloth is always the draw. All of my visual art centers on the connection between cloth and body. Almost as dear to my heart is laundry, the process more than the equipment to perform it, though ironing boards, clothespins, mangles fascinate me too.

I had not performed an object search in the online catalog before traveling on the E train and Q64 bus last Tuesday in a chill 12 degree wind to Queens College. Given the hundreds of handkerchiefs Louis used in each performance and the thousands he went through in his lifetime (can you picture him holding the trumpet without a handkerchief?) I figured the collection would be rich. In fact, there are two.

One is a white 13½” square, the other a white 18½” square. Both are part of the Satchmo collection. The core collection is the Louis and Lucille Armstrong Collection, 5000 photographs, 85 scrapbooks, 650 reel-to-reel tapes, personal papers (e.g. hotel bills) and objects. The Satchmo Collection contains letters, autographed programs, and a few objects given by many donors, most of them fans who met Louis once, perhaps in his dressing room before or after a performance. The third collection is the Jack Bradley Collection, an expansive treasure of photographs and memorabilia donated by Bradley, a close friend.

A short digression: in searching all handkerchief records, mentions occur on Louis’s recorded tapes. On one tape several female fans visit Louis asking him to dedicate songs to them in his 6:30 performance and again in the 9:30 one. Louis agrees and asks them to write out their names. I never heard the handkerchief mention but no matter. Velma Middleton, Louis’s vocalist with the All Stars and a dear friend, drops by, they sing back and forth, she moves on. The Archives Assistant, Lesley Zlabinger, who helped me search for materials, said Louis often left the recorder running for hours picking up the occasional random conversation. How easy it would be to spend hours and hours listening. How difficult to choose the 72 minutes for Disc 2 of The Fleischmann Yeast Show and Louis’s Home Recorded Tapes from the thousands of hours.

Back to the two handkerchiefs. Each was given to the collection years later. The larger handkerchief is noteworthy because Louis autographed it—“To Sweet Lucy F——— Louis Armsrong and Lucille 1959. Written in green ink. I wondered if the ink had changed color with age. “No,” Lesley said, “Louis often used a pen with green ink. He used green typewriter ribbons as well. He loved green ink.” Seeing the green against the white as I handled the handkerchief (with white gloves) was the defining moment, why photographs can never replace touch. This handkerchief was donated in 2000. I like to think of it as a prized possession passed to the next generation and then finally the decision that many would benefit through giving it to the archive.

I also handled two pieces of paper, two laundry lists, the first, the standard dry cleaners list with 38 handkerchiefs, dated 11-10-64. The other is a handwritten list on the letterhead of Hotel Lafayette in Buffalo, NY, no date: Mr. Louis Armstrong—1 pajama set, 3 white shirts, 5 sport shirts, 7 shorts, 7 pr socks, 90 hankies. Both items from the Jack Bradley Collection, marked by Bradley with large black arrows by the handkerchief entries.

Good to see, but……oh, I wish there were more handkerchiefs, more lists, all those handkerchiefs winnowed to these two.

[1] Scanning: the aberrant architectures of diller +scofidio, Whitney Museum of Art, 2003, 91.


Thursday, February 10, 2011


Happy News!
Stop-Time will happen on July 6, 2011!

Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute will partner with Stop-Time to present a variety of musical events, dance, visual art, and performance at several downtown Saratoga and Skidmore College locations. 
Between 3 and 7 pm audiences are invited to hear and see musicians, actors, dancers and artists present their versions of Louis Armstrong’s life and music. With improvisation as guide, Stop-Time artists take Louis Armstrong’s words and notes as starting point and reshape Armstrong’s canvas for this day.

Special Guest: Hal Miller, faculty, Skidmore College Summer Jazz Institute, will deliver a talk replete with video material documenting Louis Armstrong’s musical development.

A few of Hal Miller’s accomplishments, as listed on Skidmore College’s Office of Special Programs website:
Having collected in excess of 14,000 jazz videos, Miller contributes frequently to TV documentaries and special programs. His “Jazz Heritage” series was shown on Black Entertainment Television, and he collaborated with Ken Burns on the PBS documentary, “Jazz: A History of America’s Music.” Miller is Director of Programming for Jazz Video Networks and Associate Producer for Jazz Icons, providing rare jazz video materials to colleges and universities. He frequently tours with the Carlos Santana Band and is collaborating with Santana to write his autobiography. Miller is also a writing and research consultant for jazz history and CD liner-note projects.

Artists, locations, times will be announced soon.

Skidmore College Summer Jazz Institute 

In celebration: Here’s a song Armstrong wrote—“Cornet Chop Suey Blues.”   He wrote it in 1924; this recording, Chicago, February 26, 1926.—almost 85 years ago. Recorded with His Hot Five: Armstrong, cornet; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; and Lil Armstrong, piano, Johnny St. Cyr, banjo.

Cornet Chop Suey

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Am Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong

Saratoga is a pile of snow. We’ve dug out from under at least three times in the past two weeks. Anyone with a snow blower knows there’s no place to put the stuff. I’ve learned the value of a roof brake and how hard they are to come by. Allerdice Hardware ordered more; I paid in advance. Perhaps the roof brake will avert the ice dam damage, rivulets running down my red walls in March. And the COLD. It won’t quit. Which brings me to FOOD, comfort food and Louis.

He loved RED BEANS AND RICE. He signed his letters, Am Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong. Beans and rice for February a la Louis. A friend recently served me her delicious beans, dry beans cooked in a broth. They came from Rancho Gordo. So many beautiful beans with alluring names—I ordered immediately. 

Cargamanto Cranberry Beans, Eye of the Goat, Rio Zape—which one will I choose for tomorrow’s supper after the StopTime planning committee meets?

While you’re thinking about Red Beans and Rice, the possibility of eating some tonight, you can listen to one of Louis’s favorite songs, “Dear Old Southland.”  This recording is from the 1947 Town Hall Concert, a great moment when Louis played with a new band, Jack Teagarden, Dick Carey, Bobby Hackett; Peanuts Hucko, Bob Haggart, and Sid Catlett. They didn’t have time to rehearse. “Dear Old Southland” was early on, fourth number when the band was just getting the hang of playing together. Nevertheless, it’s fine and especially Louis’s slow, meditative rendition.

In 1970 near the end of his life, Louis added segments to his autobiography. His recollection of his childhood and youth in New Orleans was published in 1936. Throughout his life he filled in the blanks. Here he writes about falling in love with Lucille, his fourth wife, the beloved one, the last one. They married in 1943, just five years before he recorded this “Dear Old Southland.”
……..I stopped her from Talking by slowly reaching for her Cute little Beautifully Manicured hand And said to her, “Can you Cook’ Red Beans and Rice? Which Amused her very much. Then it dawned on her that I was very serious. She—being a Northern girl and Me a Southern boy from N.O. She could see why I asked her that question. So She said: “I’ve never cooked that kind of food before. But—Just give me a little time and I think that I can fix it for you.” That’s All that I wanted to hear, and right away I said’ “How about Inviting me out to your house for dinner tomorrow night?” She said “Wait a minute, give me time to get it together, or my wits together, or Sompthing. We’ll say a Couple of days from now?” Gladly I Accepted. Two days later I was at her house on time with Bells on. Also my best Suit. I met her Mother Mrs. Maude Wilson. Then later I met, Jackie, Janet and Sonny. They all impressed me right away as the kind of Relatives that I could be at ease being around for the rest of my life.

The Red Beans + Rice that Lucille Cooked for me was just what the Doctor ordered. Very much delicious and I Ate Just like a dog. I said forgive me after I had finished eating. I Just had to make some kind of excuse. She accepted it very cheerful. Because I am sure that Lucille has never witnessed any one Human Being eating So much. Especially at one Sitting. I had her to save the rest of the Beans that was left over. Then I’d come another time and finish them. We commenced getting closer “n” closer as time went by .[1]

Like Lucille, when Louis first caught her eye, I’m not well versed in cooking beans and rice. But I’ll give it try for tomorrow. We’ll be talking location for StopTime, the streets of Saratoga, in and around the bus stops and shelters and in the Saratoga Train Station. I’ve been meeting with people in city organizations, Chamber of Commerce and Saratoga Arts, Skidmore College individuals as well since we’re looking to partner with The Jazz Institute which takes place on Skidmore’s campus, June 25 through July 9. Precise place and the date are still up in the air. I also see how complicated planning an event is—the many permissions, even licenses that may be required. I’m choosing to think of this as a fantastic unexplored excursion into the life of a city instead of daunting work.

We’ll also be discussing performers. Several people have already signed on. Now is the time to review the whole spectrum, music to visual art, storytelling and poetry. 

[1] Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings, Thomas Brothers, ed. (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999), 139-140.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Good Morning Viet Nam

Louis Armstrong died 17 years before Good Morning Vietnam came to your local theater. I wonder what he’d say hearing himself sing “What a Wonderful World” to tune of the U. S. military presence in Vietnam in 1965. Robin Williams, d. j. Adrian Cronauer, spins the song as the bucolic daybreak opening gives way to strafing, fires, then slides back to the calm return of planes and soldiers to camp at end of day. Although the film tries hard to be an anti-war protest, long after the fact of the war itself, this is the only scene that really grabs. Robin Williams is Robin Williams, that’s good, but hardly enough. The contrived plot and wooden characters are, well, wooden. “What a Wonderful World” is the only transgression in the film that works.
Armstrong separated his entertaining, his art from his politics. He came up when minstrelsy was still around. He went along with it sometimes. In the 1950s and, especially, 1960s, younger African-Americans saw Armstrong as too grounded in subservient, racist shtick to represent new attitudes born in the civil rights movement. The story of Armstrong’s response to Little Rock is frequently mentioned in biographies of him, but perhaps it’s new to you. 

On September 19, 1957 a reporter buttonholed Armstrong in Grand Forks, North Dakota, as he was about to go on stage and asked him to respond to Little Rock and Governor Faubus’s actions. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” And went on to say Eisenhower was “two-faced” with “no guts,” allowing “uneducated plowboy” Faubus to run the country. Armstrong stated he would cancel his upcoming trip to Russia on behalf of the State Department. The reporter handed him his notes and Armstrong signed off with “solid.”[1]
The next day his road manager, Pierre Tallerie, told reporters that his boss was “sorry he spouted off.” Louis fired him and said, “He’s speaking for himself. My people—the Negroes—are not looking for anything—we just want a square shake. But when I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl—I think I have a right to get sore…. do you dig me when I still say I have a right to blow my top over injustice?”  The black community did not support him. Adam Clayton Powell and Sammy Davis, Jr. spoke out against Armstrong’s stand. Later as Lucille Armstrong recalled, “ they got on the bandwagon when it was safe.”[2]
Art is supposed to transgress. This is its vaunted goal. Louis Armstrong made the most of subversive material; his shenanigans in a fistful of his films and dozens of his songs make this clear. But he did not use his artistry as a platform for his politics. He was strong-minded at every juncture and made no secret of his views, his allegiance to his race, and his aberrance to the government’s actions. What would Louis Armstrong say to singing “What a Wonderful World” to the tune of the Vietnam War?

[1] Gary Giddins, Satchmo, DeCapo, 2001, first edition 1988, 126-128.