Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When Satchmo made a historic squawk

Reporters, even when covering celebrities, can change the course of history.
This bright little nugget by David Margolick in the International Herald Tribune recounts what transpired when Lubenow, an enterprising cub reporter, persuaded Louis Armstrong to speak out about the segregation problems in Little Rock, Arkansas half a century ago.

"It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," a furious Armstrong told him [the reporter]. Eisenhower, he charged, was "two faced," and had "no guts." For Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: "uneducated plow boy." The euphemism, Lubenow says, was far more his than Armstrong's.

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 Armstrong and who had joined them in the room, to hush him up.

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?"

Lubenow, who came from a small North Dakota farming community, was shocked by what he heard, but he also knew he had a story; he skipped the concert and went back to the paper to write it up. It was too late to get it into his own paper; nor would the Associated Press editor in Minneapolis, dubious that Armstrong could have said such things, put it on the national wire, at least until Lubenow could prove he hadn't made it all up.

So the next morning Lubenow returned to the Dakota Hotel and, as Armstrong shaved, had the Herald photographer take their picture together. Then Lubenow showed Armstrong what he'd written. "Don't take nothing out of that story," Armstrong declared. "That's just what I said, and still say." He then wrote "solid" on the bottom of the yellow copy paper, and signed his name.

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