I mentioned July 4, 1901 in that first entry but dismissed it fairly quickly; now, I feel I might have been premature in my dismissal. But let's quickly recap what we know of the other two dates.
As all Armstrong fans know, Louis believed he was born on July 4, 1900. He said his mother called him a "firecracker baby." For his entire life--and about 15 years after--July 4 was synonymous with the birth of the United States of America and the birth of the man who ruled 20th century popular music.
I feel that without a doubt, Louis believed he was born on July 4. In 1918, when it came time to register for the World War I draft in New Orleans, he gave his birthday as July 4, 1900:
Isn't that cool? Okay, end of story. Louis celebrates his 71st birthday on July 4, 1971 and dies two days later on July 6, 1971 at the age of 71.
But hold the phone! In the mid-80s, diligent researcher Tad Jones found a baptismal certificte from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans, showing that Louis Armstrong, "niger, illegitimus," was born August 4, 1901! WTF!? Okay, so Louis was born on a month later AND a year later, August 4, 1901, meaning he died at the age of 69. Cue the celebrations!
However, many folks have issues with the August 4 date. After my last post, New Orleans trumpeter Greg Beaman wrote, "As someone who spends quite a bit of time in various New Orleans archives every week, I can say that the record keeping around 1900 wasn't always top notch." Beaman researches historic properties and mentioned, "Many times, names will be spelled differently in different documents recording the same sale, property surveys will come up missing, and dates don't always match. If the clerks documenting property transactions worth thousands of dollars got these minor details wrong, who's to say the clerk documenting the birth of an Illegitimate child from Back of Town got it right?"
I was at Satchmo Summerfest one year when Dan Morgenstern challenged it outright. Without any prodding, Dan volunteered information that he got from an unnamed New Orleans historian who told him that baptismal certificates from this period are often unreliable. Dan said he doesn't quite buy it (8-4 is easy to mistake for 7-4) and he still prefers celebrating it on July 4, which drew applause from some in the room. Earlier this year, Dr. Cornel West visited the Armstrong House and he had similar feelings regarding the baptismal certificate, saying it could have simply been a mistake or maybe August 4 was the date of the baptism.
But here's where it gets really interesting. In 2013, my good friend Hakan Forsberg wrote in to say that he read someone claiming that Louis's social security application existed and on it, he listed yet another date: July 4, 1901. Seriously? I had never heard this. But I checked the Armstrong Archives, and sure enough we had a photocopy of it, which Michael Cogswell said he printed off the internet over a decade ago. Here it is:
Wow, right? Louis was at Paramount in Hollywood filming "Every Day's a Holiday" when he filled this out. July 4, 1901. Louis, sticking to July 4, but finally admitting to the government that he was born a year later, 1901. Even the birthday holds up: Louis says he was 35 at the time of his last birthday, which would have been July 4, 1936.
In 2013, it was at this point when I mentioned that I looked up Louis's entry in the Social Security Death Index and saw that at the time of his death, it said that Louis's card was issued in California and his birthday was July 4, 1900. I made an excuse that maybe the first one was a mistake and that was that.
But then along came James P. Karst and his incredible New Orleans Times-Picayune story of last December, Our Times: The Louis Armstrong Childhood Arrest That No One Knew About. In the piece, Karst discovered that Armstrong was arrested in October 1910 (for being a "dangerous and suspicious character") and sent to the Colored Waif's Home for the first time. In the official record from the Colored Waif's Home, it lists Louis Armstrong, admitted October 21, age 9.
|Colored Waif's Home entry log of October 1910, from James P. Karst's aforementioned December 2014 New Orleans Times-Picayune story.|
9-years-old on October 21, 1910? That would mean born in 1901. And if Louis really believed his was born on July 4, that would make his birthday July 4, 1901.
The next time we see his age is on the draft registration and by that point, "Little Louis" is on his way to becoming a real professional musician (and changing the world). He's a young man so adds a year to appear a little older, a little wiser. July 4, 1900. Perfect. But when the government came calling for social security in 1937, maybe he got nervous and reverted back to the "real" birthday, July 4, 1901.
As usual, this is still based on speculation (and admittedly, by discounting August 4 altogether, which might not be smart). As Michael Cogswell told me, there are only three official documents with Louis's birthday on them: the baptismal certificate (August 4, 1901), the draft registration card (July 4, 1900) and the social security application (July 4, 1901). Three documents, three different dates. But after sleeping on it and letting the 1910 arrest information sink in, I think I'm starting to believe that August 4 is unreliable and July 4, 1901 seems to make a lot of sense. I "think."
|Louis celebrates his birthday in 1970 at "Louis Armstrong and His Friends" record date. That's the late Ornette Coleman just over Louis's head.|
One thing is for sure: I don't think Louis was "lying" at anytime. Sometimes, folks think he lied and picked July 4 because it was a good "showbiz" date. (But he picked it by 1918 when he only had a toe in the showbiz world.) Others have pointed to a reported gunfight in Louis's neighborhood on August 4, 1901, meaning the "firecrackers" Mayann heard were really bullets. This is a funny story but again, in Armstrong's dangerous neighborhood, I'm sure this was quite a regular occurrence, even on the Fourth of July! Louis sure never doubted his mother. On The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Cavett asked Louis when he was born. "1900. 12 o'clock at night," came the response. Cavett, confused by the midnight assertion, asked, "So how do they know whether your birthday was on--your birthday, I thought it was on the Fourth?" Without missing a beat, Louis replied, "I didn't ask Mama about all that, I was just glad to be here! I wouldn't interfere with her business!" And as Michael Steinman wrote this morning, "Although Mayann's formal education must have been limited, I believe that she wouldn't confuse July and August when remembering her delivery."
Louis wouldn't waver from the Fourth of July and for that reason alone, some folks still prefer to celebrate on the Fourth. We have a big concert at the Louis Armstrong House Museum every July 4 and it always inspires e-mails and social media posts from folks making sure we know that July 4 is not the real date. But that's when Louis celebrated it and doesn't that stand for something? Trumpeter Gregg Stafford told Offbeat in 2013, "My feeling was always that, okay, if Louis Armstrong celebrated his birthday all his life on the Fourth of July, he must have known that--they must have told him that. It's as if to say that he was lying about his birthday. He wasn't around to challenge it, so what are you going to do, change his birthday because of a paper that says another date?"
So two years after my original post, the consensus is the same....there is no consensus. But that Colored Waif's Home article has certainly changed my thinking. That, coupled with the Social Security application, gives a lot of credence to July 4, 1901. Will we ever know for sure? No. Will I be at the Satchmo Summerfest celebrating Louis's August 4 birthday? I certainly will!
The only outcome is to celebrate Louis's birthday on July 4 AND August 4. And to celebrate his contributions to civilization every other day of the year. Happy birthday, Pops. And America.