Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue"—all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite desert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes you're behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music. (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)
It's still Independence Day a few more minutes, which means it's still Louis Armstrong's putative birthday. My father was passionate about many things, perhaps most so about music, especially jazz music from the 20s, 30s and 40s. So July 4th seems a good occasion to say a few things about my father's love of music and how in a certain sense it all began with Pops Armstrong.
All through my childhood my father tried to excite me with music that was important to him. As a little boy, I danced around our living room to Woody Guthrie's children's songs. Dad also got me listening to Pete Seeger's Children's Concert at Town Hall—with those renditions of work songs and of old ballads like "Henry My Son" (aka "Lord Randall"):
What did you eat in the woods all day,
Henry my son?
What did you eat in the woods all day
my pretty one?
Eels, dear mother. Eels, dear mother.
Mother be quick I got to be sick and
lay me down to die.
What color were those eels, Henry
What color were those eels, my pride and joy
Green and yeller. Green and yeller.
Mother be quick I got to be sick and
lay me down to die.
For the longest time, those lines "Green and yeller. Green and yeller. / Mother be quick I got to be sick and / lay me down to die" were about the funniest things I'd ever heard.
The other song Dad taught me to love from that children's concert was Seeger's adaptation of Abiyoyo, the South African lullaby. In Seeger's version there's a father and son pair who both are always getting into trouble. The father, a magician, can make things disappear with his magic wand. He goes around playing practical jokes, making chairs disappear as folks were about to sit down, zapping a log out of existence right while a worker was sawing it in half. In the meantime, the magician's son went around with a ukulele, playing it wherever he could and disrupting whatever might be going on. The townspeople got frustrated with these two troublemakers and made them live on the outskirts of town.
Then one day a huge, scary monster called Abiyoyo came marching along, swallowing sheep and cows and people in one bite. Everyone was running for their lives. The magician said to his son, "Oh, son. It's Abiyoyo. Oh, if only I could get him to lie down. I could get him to disappear."
The boy said, "Come with me father." He grabbed his father by one hand. The father grabbed the magic wand, and the boy grabbed his ukulele. Over the fields they went, right up to where Abiyoyo was.
People screamed "Don't go near him! He'll eat you alive!"
There was Abiyoyo. He had long fingernails, 'cause he never cut 'em. He had slobbery teeth 'cause he never brushed them. Matted hair, 'cause he never combed it. Stinking feet, 'cause he never washed them. He was just about to come down with his claws, when the boy whipped out his ukulele.
Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo Abiyoyo, yo yoyo yo yoyo Abiyoyo, yo yoyo yo yoyo Abi. . .
Well, the monster had never heard a song about himself before, and a foolish grin spread across his face. And started to dance.
ABIYOYO, ABIYOYO, The boy went faster.
ABIYOYO, YO YOYO, YO YOYO ABIYOYO, YO YOYO...
The giant got out of breath. He staggered. He fell down flat on the ground.
Zoop, zoop! went the father with his magic want, and Abiyoyo disappeared.
People streamed out of their houses, and ran across the fields. They said: "Why, he's gone, he's disappeared!"
They said: "Come on back to town. Bring your damn ukulele;
we don't care."
A little while back I discovered that the "Children's Concert at Town Hall" had been reissued on cd. I went out and bought a copy and started listening again. Seems to me now that in 1962, when the record came out, Abiyoyo must have been to my dad—and maybe to Pete Seeger, too—an apparition of all the violent social and political forces he was fighting against—segregation, nuclear proliferation, economic injustice, anti-communist witch hunters. Dad's activism was driven by great idealism but also by profound feelings of loneliness and a deep need for attention, not for fame but for a kind of recognition that comes only in the moment. In my childhood, as Dad's intense involvement in political movements was moving into the past, I think he had this romantic feeling that I'd be his ukulele playing sidekick who'd finally make his own strivings come right.
Before I really knew what they were all about, I was also hearing the songs of the Civil Rights Movement. There were the versions Pete Seeger had brought up from the South at his 1963 Carnegie Hall Concert. Even more important was a record that you can't get anymore, though I have the original from Dad's collection, the SNCC Freedom Singers' We Shall Overcome, with those amazing renditions of "Woke Up," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," "We Shall Not Be Moved" and, of course, the title track.
And then there was Jazz. There was an AM station in Albany, New York that played all the jazz Dad had grown up on. When we'd go places together in the car I often took control of the radio to hear the top 40 or classic rock stations, but sometimes Dad would have me to listen to the jazz station with him. It all sounded the same to me then, but he'd call out the artists and song titles as soon as a song came on, and then he'd start telling me about who the drummer was or the clarinet or trumpet or bass player. I couldn't keep straight who any of them were, but the names became familiar, Cozy Cole, Fats Waller, Sara Vaughn, Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Bix Beiderbecke , Billie Holiday and many, many more.
Later on, in my mid-twenties, when I was a little more open to learning about some of the things that were important to Dad, he would occasionally buy me jazz recordings whose greatness he wanted me know. We'd be out somewhere, and I'd lobby to stop in at a record store. I'd head off to the rock titles and he'd browse the jazz. And then he'd be at my elbow, holding Miles' "Sketches of Spain." Did I know about this one? Would I like to have it? Um, sure Dad . . . Or the Billie Holiday Commodore Master Takes or The Benny Goodman Sextet, featuring Charlie Christian or Lionel Hampton's small band recordings.
Or Satch Plays Fats.
Now to my dad, just the fact that Satchmo Armstrong made an album interpreting his favorite titles by one of the other great jazz virtuosos from his generation, Fats Waller, was enough for this to be a momentous event in my musical education. Even then, the clear highlight of this, to me, uneven record was Louis' performance of (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue. Not much more to say about it than Ellison did. Sloe gin over vanilla ice cream. Sloe gin, that liqueur made from blackthorn plums—a densely spiny shrub with succulent fruit far too bitter for human consumption, except as flavoring. The 1955 recording is emotional and elegant, a glistening timeless object with vapor ever rising off its surfaces.
I've since learned to like even better Armstrong's 1929 recording of "Black and Blue," which must be the one Ellison was writing about in Invisible Man, since the novel was published in 1952, before Satch Plays Fats. The earlier version of the song sounds dated, with a tinkly piano introduction, the band nowhere near the same caliber as Armstrong's later All-Stars, the performance slightly mechanical and melodramatic, the swing less pronounced. But against that unremarkable backdrop, the song tells what you already should have heard beneath Stach's earlier vocal style. In those vocal performances from the late 20s and early 30s, Louis does this thing where he seems to be pushing great quantities of air through his lungs while at the same time biting off the ends of his phrases. The singing has a brooding edge and an energy that seems uncontainable.
But this isn't how Louis Armstrong got my father going. We have to go back even a little earlier to those brilliant recordings he made with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, back to one song from 1926, with Louis on trumpet and vocal, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on Clarinet, Lil Harden Armstrong on piano, and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. The song is Lonesome Blues [RealPlayer]. The story comes through my father's alter ego Mo Bartel in Long Days Short Nights, the novel Dad never finished. Most of the writing isn't much more than unedited notes or bare bones narrative sketches. What follows, however, is a teaser from the segment he completed, which he titled after the Armstrong song in question. The rest comes later, after we get through with Birmingham.
Do you remember my Tuesday to Saturday Blues? That's what it was all about. Keefe invited me on Tuesday and I had to wait until Saturday. I went and didn't over and over. I was sure they were putting me on. I would flunk the test and be the laughing stock of the school. They would remember I was Jewish and ask me to leave. One country indivisible with liberty and justice for all that crap and they would call me Jewboy and I would start a fight. I wouldn't know what to say. I hated popular music.
On Saturday I walked up the hill to Keefe's house like a car with a couple of spark plugs out. By the time I got there I was shaking, inside my stomach felt like mush. Mrs. Riley, pretty, friendly, lovely Mrs. Riley answered the door and told me "the boys are down in the basement."
Eight boys looked like an army and sounded like two. I was trapped. Eight enemies of my privacy were looking at me, surveying me. I was searching for something to say when Keefe made it easy—easy like scaling Everest easy like dying. "Hi Mo. Guys this is the clary man I told you about Mo Bartel. Mo did you bring any sides?"
"Yeah, two my left and right." I made it. I was in and still breathing.
Someone shoved a coke in my hand and I was able to ward off questions about how long I was playing or who my teacher is when Keefe shouted above the din "let's get organized and start spinning some sides first one for Mo, Pops Armstrong's Lonesome Blues featuring Johnny Dodds on clarinet."
Love on first sound? Three minutes on another planet. I mean it hit me like where have you been all my painful life. This was what I felt. The truth head on. It cried without the tears showing, it screamed pain without being sent to the nuthouse. It was all about being alone, alone, alone.