The Music in His Words: The Art of Sound and Folk in Louis Armstrong’s Manuscript for Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, “The Armstrong Story”
Date of Degree
Linda M. Grasso
Arts and Humanities | Comparative Literature | English Language and Literature | Music
This thesis dives into the musical journey embedded in the autobiographical writings of America’s jazz ambassador, Louis Armstrong. It examines Armstrong’s typewritten manuscript, The Armstrong Story, which was eventually revised by an editor and published as his second autobiography with the title of Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans in 1954 (originally published in France in 1952.) Armstrong’s manuscript reads like sheet music, where any sound could affect the harmony of the story. He created a voice that had met every art form before it became the manuscript of his autobiography, but along with that voice, references from Black folk and orality were removed by the editor from the published version, separating it from similar works of his time that treasured these features especially. The original manuscript in the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archives bears visual marks, auto-edits, and a dramatic punctuation, providing a layer of meanings and signifiers missing in the published autobiography. His notes outside the manuscript margins tell of an artist on the road; a star living the luxurious minutes of his privacy in front of a typewriter; an ordinary man at his beloved home, a celebrity at the peak of fame, but most importantly they tell of the Black twentieth century genius in the conscious act of introducing folk elements with a transnational impact. Armstrong had elevated these elements in music by delivering traditional songs with virtuosity and versatility, and he had a studious affinity for other essentially traditional songs that had already reached universality like opera or indigenous rhythms. This manuscript is the only one closer to his style that was published while the author was alive. His first, Swing that Music (1936), was heavily edited.
This research places the manuscript’s relevance in the study of autobiography: in a larger scope, it intends to classify this example, and other similar cases, when an author’s style has meaning in and of itself, which may have become lost because of editing for publication; in a narrower focus, it expands Armstrong scholarship by highlighting his autobiography’s ontological, anthropological and historic value.
Before writing this book, Armstrong had already offered groundbreaking contributions to music with his instrumental and vocal styles, and he brought with him hundreds of references to his New Orleans folk culture, that proved then to challenge the racially integrated society of the 1950s. Referring to Armstrong’s scat singing, Jazz critic Gary Giddins says in Visions of Jazz, “he added scat’s moans and riffs to the palette of conventional song interpretation, employing them to underscore emotion and rhythm and meaning” (86). His writing inherits the form and characters from those “moans and riffs.” It underscores –on the paper as well— “emotion, and rhythm, and meaning”, but its literary value was over-shadowed by his celebrity.
New Orleans culture provides a precedent for a writing style that privileges sound, and a narrative that intends to document folk traditions. Deeply rooted in rhythm, a writing style is created from the sound of words – ‘Who dat?’— But Armstrong went further, making a language of his own. It would be inaccurate to call Armstrong’s writing solely a reflection of slang or Black speech. Armstrong used ‘Jive’ talk and jazz music as a compositional style in his lines. He could speak music in a sigh.
Armstrong’s is an ideal American success story told in the spirit of Black folk, but that spirit, which brings a much deeper and symbolic legacy, is left on the surface due to his immersion in the mainstream. This thesis identifies an iconic achievement of creative individuality by Armstrong, a Black artist, and proposes a new interpretation of his manuscript that better reads his intentions of preserving folk traditions while making them relevant globally.
Filstrup, Adriana C., "The Music in His Words: The Art of Sound and Folk in Louis Armstrong’s Manuscript for Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, “The Armstrong Story”" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.