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.

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