Armstrong’s Childhood

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Like many of the early jazz figures coming out of New Orleans, Armstrong’s early years are a reflection of the poverty and difficulties experienced by many of the African-Americans in the early 1900s. Armstrong’s mother, Maryanne, moved from rural Louisiana to New Orleans to find work; met Willie Armstrong, a man already married and with a family; became pregnant with Willie’s child; was abandoned by him and on August 4, 1901 gave birth to Louis while living in Jane’s Alley, one of the poorest parts of the New Orleans ghettos. From shortly after Louis’ birth until the time he was five, Maryanne found occasional work doing laundry, but most of the time was forced to leave Louis in the care of an uncle while she earned food money selling herself in the cheap bordellos of Storyville. Years later in his writings, Armstrong would speak of his admiration for his mother:

“Whether Maryann was selling fish (HUSTLING) I could not say. If she was, she certainly kept it out of sight. One thing, everybody from the church folks to the lowest gave her the greatest respect, and she was always glad to say hello to anybody, no matter who. Come what may, she figured. And with it all, she held her head up at all times. Nothing excited her. What she didn’t have, she did without. She never envied no one, or anything they may have. I guess I inherited that part of life from Maryann.” (My Life)

His childhood years were filled with two things: hard work and music. The hard work consisted of hauling coal to the bordellos in Storyville, selling rags, cleaning gravestones in the cemetery and whatever odd jobs he could find. Louis and his younger sister would do whatever they needed to do to help with food.

[My sister] “and I used to go out to Front of Town when we were very young– among those produce places–where they would throw away spoiled potatoes, onions into a big barrel, and she and I among other kids used to raid those barrels–cut off the spoiled parts and sell them to restaurants. There was a baker shop which sold two loafs of stale bread for a nickel. They would do that to help the poor children. They could always get filled up at least on bread. [My sister] and I had to do it lots of times. Many kids suffered from hunger. Their father could have done some honest work for a change. No, they would not do that. It would be too much like right.” (Archive)

Armstrong carried a deep appreciation for the simple blessings for the rest of his life, never taking for granted the smallest kindness or gesture of goodness shown to him. Though he met presidents and kings and popes, he never assumed any air of elitism. He never forgot his common roots.

The music in Armstrong’s life was first learned on the streets around his home. At age eight or nine, he formed a vocal quartet with four friends, performing on street corners for tips. To get the attention of the crowd, they would bang tin cans or blow harmonicas until a few people gathered to listen to them. On one occasion, he took a tin horn and started blowing to call a crowd around them. He realized by varying his lips on the horn he could create a melody. He was eleven years old and he realized that he “had music in my soul.” A few months later he discovered a beat-up cornet in the window of a pawn shop for sale for 5 dollars. The Karnofskys, the kind Jewish couple who gave him work, advanced him on his 50 cent a week wages so that he could buy the instrument.

Young Louis Armstrong
New Orleans Times-Democrat Jan. 2, 1913

Life took its first major change in the early hours of the morning on January 1, 1913. On a dare, Armstrong took his stepfather’s .38 revolver and fired six blanks into the air. He was arrested for disturbing the peace and spent a night in jail. In the court hearing the next day, the judge, familiar with Armstrong’s previous run-ins with the police (he was arrested several times for stealing newspapers and then reselling them), sent the boy to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.

Far more than a juvenile detention center, the Waif’s Home was run by a former Army Captain who drilled discipline and self respect into the boys in his charge. Part of the education and training provided the boys was the opportunity to learn to play music. The music teacher at the Home saw incredible potential in Armstrong and quickly moved him from tambourine to bugle, and finally, to cornet. While at the Home, Armstrong received basic musical instruction and was exposed to a wide repertoire of marches, rags, ballads, folk, and pop songs.

It was during this time that Armstrong was given one of his beloved nicknames: “Satchmo.” Childhood friends teased Louis about his overly large mouth comparing it to the size of a piece of luggage, calling him “Satchel Mouth.” Eventually “Satchel Mouth” was abbreviated and Armstrong wore the nickname “Satchmo” with pride for the rest of his life.

Later in his life, he spoke positively of his time in the Home, even donating generously to the various juvenile homes in New Orleans. By the time he left, in June of 1914, the only life he wanted was that of a musician.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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