Today is Juneteenth, a consolidation of the name of the month and the date (June 19th, 1865) on which federal troops under General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and officially announce the end of slavery. Though Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on the first of January, 1863, he was then President of the United States but not of the eleven Confederate states, including Texas. The Proclamation was therefore only applicable to the Confederate states once the Civil War was over. Until this time, slavery still went on in these states, and it must have been fairly easy to withhold the news from the black residents of Galveston, an island two miles off the Texas mainland. Since General Granger delivered the message, however, Juneteenth has the distinction of being the longest-running African American holiday, has been rightly celebrated as an "occasion of monumental value to U.S. history," as Desiree Rew, creator of Rue Desiree: For the Love of Food and Travel, expressed in a piece she contributed to Travel Awaits. Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, in 1980, and 47 other states (and the District of Columbia) later followed. Happily, it became a national holiday only a few days ago. There are lots of ways to join in Juneteenth celebrations -- see the Blkfreedom site for details of its own 2021 program -- and as Rew noted that at many festivals there are vendors who specialize in "books that feature and educate on the history of Juneteenth and black advancement from 1865 to the present," it seems like an appropriate time for me to enthuse about Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.
I've been meaning to write a post about the museum since I visited in the summer of 2019 with my husband and our good friends Pat and Linda, but I got behind and then the pandemic happened. In fact the museum is still temporarily closed; but if you live in the New York metropolitan area or plan to be here, make a note to continue checking the website for its reopening as a visit is truly worthwhile.
All visits are by guided tours as only a limited number of people can fit in the rooms of the house, where Louis and his wife, Lucille, moved in 1943. I didn't take any photographs so I have none to share here, but there are some great ones included in this article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Photographer Jack Bradley, who first heard Armstrong and his band play on Cape Cod in the 1950s and who passed away in the spring of this year (here is his obituary which appeared in The New York Times), devotedly collected everything of interest related to Armstrong's life, and it was all acquired by the House Museum. The house is not at all fancy, and my favorite room is the kitchen -- the cabinets are bright and bold turquoise! Our guide was great, and at the tour's end, we had a few questions about some of the facts he shared and he recommended two books (that are for sale at the museum), What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years by Ricky Riccardi, who is the museum's Director of Research Collections (Pantheon, hardcover, 2011; Vintage, paperback, 2012) and Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway, hardcover, 1997; Crown, paperback, 1998). I enjoyed them both, and there's not really much overlap between them.
Louis is incredibly quoteworthy, and a few of his memorable remarks in What a Wonderful World include:
"I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music; it's always come first, but the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people."
"I don't give a damn how many come in, if it was one or one thousand. I ain't goin' play no louder or no softer, and I ain't goin' play no less. I might play a little more, but always up to par."
Not without criticism, he refused to participate in marches and protests, not because he didn't believe in the cause but because "...if I'd be out somewhere marching with a sign and some cat hits me in my chops, I'm finished. A trumpet man gets hit in the chops and he's through. If my people don't dig me the way I am, I'm sorry. If they don't go along with me giving my dough instead of marching, well -- every cat's entitled to his opinion. But that's the way I figure I can help out and still keep on working. If they let me alone on this score I'll do my part, in my way."
Ricky Riccardi, who also maintains a great blog, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, wrote that Armstrong said the lyrics of 'What a Wonderful World' meant so much to him. Riccardi believes that "Few people could really know the meaning of the phrase "wonderful world" as much as Louis Armstrong." And about the song 'We Shall Overcome,' Riccardi adds, "To think about what Armstrong, singing those lyrics and all the obstacles he overcame to achieve what he did -- poor childhood, racism, becoming the scorn of younger black musicians and writers -- he overcame it all to become the greatest, most important jazz musician of them all."
In another good book, Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (Oxford University Press, 1999), Louis noted in the first chapter, 'Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,' "The Lord kept his Arms around us all the time. He could see that, all we wanted to do in life is to live and at least be contented. Respect people and be respected."
I think if Louis Armstrong were still with us today he'd surely be playing his trumpet, with much joy, on the occasion of Juneteenth.