Unfettered Character: Louis’ Early years in New Orleans
One of the benefits of living in modernity is the ability to look back onto bygone eras and feel the warmth of societal progress. To be able to feel as if we as a collective have come so far from behavior, actions, laws, and populist mindsets that would appall in this day and age. If one were to put cynicism aside, most could agree that despite civil leaps and bounds made here in the U.S., we aren’t as far removed from a period in which life in America, particularly in the South, was undoubtedly dangerous and challenging for people to navigate. We are fast approaching the centennial of when Louis Armstrong first left New Orleans for Chicago with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and a turning point in Louis’ illustrious career. These thoughts come to mind as my research here at the archives demands reflection on Louis Armstrong’ life experiences.
Picture life in the early 20th century in New Orleans, it is easy to get lost in the romanticism of a jewel of a city with French sensibilities and Southern American charm. The reality of turn of the century life, especially for Blacks in New Orleans was just as ugly as any other place in the South or America in general for that matter. What strikes me as most incredible is Louis’ disposition on life despite a turbulent childhood and early adult life. The image we share of Satchmo as a genuinely good-natured, loving, warm, and jolly figure would be even more admirable if one were to know his early life before international fame. Louis, was born into a poor family, raised by his grandmother then later his mother and spends considerable time in a quasi-juvenile detention orphanage. From here, Louis stays with his father to later return with his mother and sister serving primarily as the provider in the household all before he makes fifteen years old.
In one of his autobiographies Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Louis details his upbringing while painting the picture of life in the city. The people, places, and experiences are all told in the unique way that only Louis could articulate and this is only part of what makes his story compelling. Louis causally describes scenes of prostitution, illegal gambling, domestic violence, and brutality in the streets between both genders. In his autobiography Louis details a fight between two women at a bar that spills over into the streets
“Every blow was aimed for the face, and every time one would slash the other, the crowd could go “Huh, my gawd!” They were both streaming with blood when they fell to the sidewalk exhausted…The Quarter has never forgotten that fight, one of the bloodiest anyone had ever seen.”
These things were normalized to Louis and despite that the debauchery is in part learned behavior and part byproduct of poverty, it never appears to desensitize Louis’ nature. Trauma can cause various changes in character and behavior, yet Louis appears to remain himself throughout it all. When Louis reflects upon the characters in his life whether they caused harm to him personally or to others; he never goes out of his way to belittle or demean anybody’s character. Louis tells his truth and tells it straight without going out of his way to paint anybody in an excessively negative light. Here Louis describes one of his mother’s lovers
“As for Stepfather Slim, he was not a bad guy, but he drank too much. One day he would be nice, and the next he would beat Mayann up.” Typically, some form of resentment can be felt in reflections such as these and yet Louis refuses to bring himself to a place in which he would speak badly upon another. This honorable trait is something that would remain with Louis for the rest of his life. Armstrong summarizes his disposition in life perfectly as he states in Satchmo “As I grew up around Liberty and Perdido I observed everything and everybody. I loved all those people and they loved me. The good ones and the bad ones all thought that Little Louis was O.K. I stayed in my place, I respected everybody and I was never rude or sassy.”
This fellowship has provided me the chance to reflect and interpret my thoughts on aspects of Louis’ life in ways that do not solely focus on music or his celebrity. It is easy to get swept away in the wonder of Armstrong’s legacy; however, when one puts things into the context of time and place, there are many compelling and thought-provoking themes that arise. I look forward to exploring more themes centered around Louis Armstrong as the fellowship continues to excite and challenge.