Louis Armstrong’s father, Willie Armstrong, worked in a turpentine factory. He married or did not marry Mayann, Louis’s mother. He left the family soon after Louis’s sister, Mama Lucy, was born. He died in 1933. From these bare facts Louis embroidered a short, bitter text. He told the story of his childhood and wrote it over and over. In his eyes his father was of little consequence. Louis Armstrong had grounds—desertion. Here in Armstrong’s words are three versions, 1936, 1954, and 1969-1970.
[My mother] met my father in New Orleans. His name was Willie and he was a turpentine worker. My father died just a few years ago , but his mother is still living. She’s a pretty old lady now—about ninety I guess—maybe more. I saw her when I was in New Orleans a little while ago. She certainly was one grand cook and could swing the biscuits. But I guess my father and mother were not very happy. He married her when she was only fifteen years old.
When I was a year old my father went to work in a turpentine factory out by James Alley, where he stayed til he died in 1933. He stayed there so long he almost became a part of the place, and he could hire and fire the colored guys who worked under him. From the time my parents separated I did not see my father again until I had grown to a pretty good size, and I did not see Mayann for a long time either.
My mother May Ann (Mary Ann)—Young with a nice smile, a little on the chubby side, Beatrice, which was Mama Lucy (nickname), was Two years younger than me. We had a few Step Fathers through the years Since we never did see our real Father, whose name was Willie Armstrong. A Tall Nice looking Guy, Brown Skinned. With holes in his face—indications of healed small pox. He was a Freak for being the Grand Marshal for the Odd Fellows Lodge Parade. Especially when they had Funerals (or the 10th of May celebration). Then he would go on the hard working job that he had. He was working for a big Turpentine company keeping fire in those big furnaces, for a very small Pay….
The man who May Ann told us was our Father left us the day we were born. The next time we heard of him—he had gone into an uptown neighborhood and made several other children by another woman. Whether he married the other woman, we’re not sure. One thing—he did not marry May Ann. She had to struggle all by herself bringing us up. Mama Lucy + I were bastards from the Start.
Turpentine was big agriculture and big business in the south from post Civil War until after WWII. Work in the camps and in the factories supported many people, but not with sizeable incomes. Look at Willie Armstrong this way. His job, tending the fires in the furnace, was hot and hard. Working a furnace is unpleasant in itself, add to that the fumes of a turpentine factory. It’s remarkable that he lived as long as did (no birth date available, estimated age at death—50). He held one job in one place for over thirty years. Even if this was a lowly one, it was not rock bottom. He had hiring and firing power. He was SOMEONE in his place of work.
In the only known photo of Willie Armstrong, the image fits Louis’s description—“a tall, nice looking guy, brown skinned.” Any evidence of small pox scars are not visible in the photo. Here is Willie in his Sunday best and dapper he is. What would a photo of Willie at work in the turpentine photo look like? I’d like to see him there, see pictures of those factories in 1901, 1914, or 1930.
Ralph Ellison is the reason I began ruminating about Willie Armstrong’s life—his life at work and what work was. I was reading Invisible Man again. In the Prologue Ellison muses on Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?”—tying it to the condition of invisibility. This is perhaps the most famous passage in the novel and the link that led me to reread the novel now.
Armstrong’s singing “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” pulses forward from those first pages to inform every circumstance and scrape that the narrator finds himself in. Arriving in New York from the south, he first seeks employment handing out the precious sealed letter of recommendation from his college superintendent. As the last of seven letters reaches its prospective employer, the man reads it and then lets the narrator in on what the reader suspected—the letters portray the narrator as incompetent and far worse.
Shortly after this the narrator finds a job in a paint factory. The working conditions are strikingly similar to my imagined view of a turpentine factory. Ellison gives the reader a paint factory seemingly in the hands of one very clever man, Lucius Brockway. In Ellison’s humorous, deft portrayal of Brockway, the reader learns he is in charge of the creating the base ingredients from which all the paint is manufactured. He is the engineer who knows through his hands not through education. The narrator is assigned as Brockway’s assistant. The elder man, gruffly but surely, takes Invisible Man under his wing.
“All right, but I’m warning you to keep an eye on ‘em. You caint forgit down here, ‘cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we be the machines inside the machine.
"You know the best selling paint we got, the one that made this business?" he asked as I helped him fill a vat with a smelly substance.
"No, I don't."
"Our white, Optic White."
"Why the white rather than the others?'
"'Cause we started stressing it from the first. We make the best white paint in the world, I don't give a damn what nobody says. Our white is so white you can paint a chunk coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through!"
His eyes glinted with humorless conviction and I had to drop my head to hide my grin.
"You notice that sign on top of the building?"
"Well, you might not believe it, but helped the Old Man make up that slogan. 'If It's Optic White, It's the Right White,'" he quoted with an upraised finger, like a preacher quoting holy writ. “I got me a three-hundred-dollar bonus for helping to think that up. These newfangled advertising folks is been tryin’ to work up something about the other colors, talking about rainbows or something, but hell, they caint get nowhere.”
“ ‘If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White,’ “ I repeated and suddenly had to repress a laugh as a childhood jingle range through my mind.
“ ‘If you’re white, you’re right,’ ″ I said.
“That’s it,” he said. “And that’s another reason why the Old Man ain’t goin’ to let nobody come down here messing with me. He knows what a lot of them new fellers don’t; he knows that the reason our paint is so good is because of the way Lucius Brockway puts the pressure on them oils and resins before they even leaves the tanks.” He laughed maliciously. “They thinks ‘cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it? Them machines just do the cooking, these here hands right here do the sweeting.
Returning to Louis’s three versions, I suggest that his view of his father is more complex than I first stated. In saying that Louis had little or no respect for his father, I take the party line, the interpretation found in biographical writing on Louis Armstrong. But Armstrong himself grants his father a measure of respect; he sees the Lucius Brockway in him. Willie Armstrong is open to criticism on the care and protection of his family, but he was gainfully employed and apparently well respected in the work place. Louis took care to add in the turpentine factory whenever he recalled his father. Surely this counts for something in the whole picture. As far as who Willie was….was he musically talented? what did he think of Louis as he followed Louis’s huge success in Chicago? None of this will be known and that’s the sad part. He’s a mystery; he’s not a bum.
“What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” is from Satch Plays Fats.
1 Swing That Music, Louis Armstrong, New York, Da Capo, 1993, 3.
2 Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, New York, Da Capo, 1986, 8-9.
3 Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, Thomas Brothers, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 7-8.
4 Louis Armstrong House Museum, Museum Collection
5 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 217-218.