In 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, things weren’t going so well on the school desegregation front in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower was eventually compelled to call in the Army to cross the racist line in the sand in defense of segregated schools that was drawn by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. The struggle that would be immortalized in the history of the civil rights movement as the Little Rock Nine was humming with jazz connections, most specifically Louis Armstrong’s, whose reputation for global goodwill had already earned him the nickname Ambassador Satch, even before the launch of the State Department’s jazz diplomacy program. But when Armstrong, on tour in North Dakota two weeks into the Little Rock standoff, broke completely out of his “happy” character and bared his angry soul to Larry Lubenow, a cub reporter at a Grand Forks newspaper, all goodwill hell broke loose. From a 2007 David Margolick op-ed in The New York Times, marking the 50th anniversary of Little Rock:
“It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told him. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.
Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inserting obscenities into the lyrics and prompting Velma Middleton, the vocalist who toured with Mr. Armstrong and who had joined them in the room, to hush him up.
Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”
Armstrong in fact didn’t make that Soviet tour; his first Jazz Ambassadorial jaunt was in Africa in 1960. Also in 1960, the complete version of the Charles Mingus composition “Fables of Faubus” found its way on record on the progressive Candid label, after Columbia rejected the lyrics for 1959’s Mingus Ah Um, on which “Fables of Faubus” appeared only as an instrumental. The Candid candid version, called “Original Faubus Fables,” can be heard here, powerfully supported by documentary footage of the era. Presented in a sort of call-and-response with his drummer, Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ lyrics, as transcribed in Ingrid Monson’s Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa:
Oh, Lord, don’t let them shoot us,
Oh, Lord, don’t let them stab us.
Oh, Lord, don’t let them tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan
Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie:
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
“He won’t permit us in his integrated schools”
Then he’s a fool.
Boo, Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo, Ku Klux Klan, with your Jim Crow plan
Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond
“. . . [undecipherable] Thomas, Faubus, Russell, Rockefeller,
Why are they so sick and ridiculous?
Two, four, six, eight—they brainwash and teach you hate.
H-E-L-L-O—Hello. (p. 183)
“Liberal” Republican oligarch Nelson Rockefeller, incidentally, who had been elected governor of New York in 1958, would turn up again in a Mingus composition in 1975, no lyrics required: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” In much the same way that it might seem sick and ridiculous today that Columbia couldn’t abide an aggressively anti-racist sentiment on a jazz record in 1959, Armstrong’s outburst two years earlier, as Margolick relates, resulted in
calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.
Ten years later, in 1967—a year of rampant rioting in America, most notably in Detroit and Newark—Armstrong, in his more familiar super-optimist’s persona, would record the pie-in-the-sky treacle of “What a Wonderful World.”