Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Birthday, Pops! (The Case for July 4, 1901...)

Three years ago, I woke up in New Orleans on August 4 and wrote a blog called "Happy Birthday Pops....Or Is It?" In it, I attempted to sort out the various points of evidence for the endless debate over when Louis was born: July 4, 1900 or August 4, 1901? Though it solved nothing, it was one of my most-read entries. But now--on July 4--I think it's time to revisit it to make a new case for a different date: July 4, 1901.

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 three 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.

JULY 5, 2015 UPDATE!
Wow, so I posted this in the early hours of July 4, 2015 and the damn thing exploded. Thanks to all who shared this entry and who weighed in on it on Facebook. Everybody made some excellent points and I added a few arguments of my own, especially after being attacked on Facebook by New Orleans scholar John McCusker.

McCusker, who wrote a definitive book on Kid Ory, was a good friend of the late researcher Tad Jones, who made the monumental discovery of the baptismal certificate, as mentioned above. McCusker didn't appreciate my blog and my bringing Dan Morgenstern into it, mockingly referring to me and Dan as "experts" (in quotes) and chiding us for not doing research in New Orleans churches as he and Tad had. (This is true: I've never done research in a New Orleans church, but I've never been fully invested in the subject matter to feel the need to do so.) 

In the spirit of equal time, McCusker wrote, "To the apologists who cling to the July 4, 1900 date despite all evidence to the contrary please see below: The Armstrong baptismal certificate is the only document contemporary to Louis' birth and it is authoritative. Here's why: The draft and SS forms were filled out decades after his birth and were dependent on the person applying, Louis himself, for the information. Since Louis believed he was born in 1900 those forms reflect that date. Baptismal registers were the most accurate documents I had when I wrote my book on Ory, more so than the census or draft record. (Ory's birthdates were all over the place on these documents, reflecting Ory's own confusion about the year of his birth) Why do I say that? Because when a Catholic sacramental form is filled out it is usually at the moment the sacrament takes place, i.e. wedding, birth, etc. And while there are sometimes delays of days or even months between a birth and a baptism, those notations in the register happen in real time...ie the moment sacrament takes place and that entry is proceeded in the sacramental books by the sacrament last performed and followed by the next customer. The date has to be correct because there are acts dated before and after it...or are we assuming that census takers and recruiting officers are better scribes then one's parish priest."

And here's McCusker on Tad Jones: "Full disclaimer, Tad Jones was my friend and discovery of the Armstrong baptismal certificate was a feather in his cap. He traced Louis' family back to slavery in Virginia and he forgot more about Louis in New Orleans than anyone else will likely ever know. And he did it without google, or text searchable data bases. He used his head, followed a hunch and hit paydirt. That's what research is all about, following the evidence where it leads not making a presumption and finding evidence to support it. Tad didn't go looking expecting the find he got. I'll bet more than anyone he wanted it to say 7/4/00. But it didn't, and for that people would often come up to him and chide him for 'stealing' Louis' birthday. So forgive me if I leap like a mother lion when I hear my friend's greatest discovery maligned."

Now I should mention that McCusker has since apologized for the way he went about disagreeing with me and I do appreciate that. Again, I admire him tremendously but would like to offer a public rebuttal. I'm offended that McCusker believes I'm trying to "discredit Tad Jones" and that he views me as as an so-called "expert" and an "apologist" clinging to the July 4 date. Nothing could be further from the truth. My only question revolves around the church and the August 4 date. Tad not only found the baptismal certificate but also the 1910 census, which listed Louis as being 8-years-old and about to turn 9 in the summer. As I wrote in my original entry, by the the time of his October 1910 arrest, he had turned 9. So the baptismal certificate plus the 1910 census plus the 1910 arrest plus the 1937 social security application all point to a birth year of 1901. In fact, I think this all proves that 1900 is dead as a possibility of Armstrong's birth, and was only added to his 1918 draft registration as a way to appear older. (Folks who still believe that Louis picked July 4 because of his later "Ambassador" status should, again, check out the blog because he was using that date in 1918 long before he conquered the world.)

My friend Glenn Crytzer also wrote in to remind me that in WWI and WWII days, young men wanted to beenlisted. Born in 1901, Armstrong would have been 18 in 1919; that's too late. So appearing a year older not only made him seem more experienced on the bandstand, but it allowed him to get registered for the draft (in his autobiography, he writes about how he was ready to fight). So I don't think Louis believed for a second that he was born in 1900, something I saw all over the internet yesterday--and hey, it was something even I wrote in my original post above!

But he sure as hell believed he was born on July 4 and that's my only quibble: the date of August 4. I'm sorry but I'm still skeptical and that has nothing to do with Tad Jones but all to do with the church. It could have been as simple as the priest asking Louis's grandmother, "Birthday?" and she responded, "The Fourth" and because it was August 25, the person wrote down August 4. It could have been a mishearing. Armstrong's Catholic grandmother could have purposely told them a later date to appear closer to the August 25 date, embarrassed it had taken so long. Or COULD be August 4! Who knows?

Apparently McCusker knows. Again, he says "the date has to be correct." Why? "Because when a Catholic sacramental form is filled out it is usually at the moment the sacrament takes place, i.e. wedding, birth, etc. And while there are sometimes delays of days or even months between a birth and a baptism, those notations in the register happen in real time...ie the moment sacrament takes place and that entry is proceeded in the sacramental books by the sacrament last performed and followed by the next customer."

But that's not the case with Armstrong. See the reprint of the sacramental form in Gary Giddins's Satchmo book. I don't know how this will reproduce but here it is as posted by Toby Byron on Facebook yesterday:

Okay, it starts with baptism number 69, done on August 25 of a child born on August 15, ten days after. Next, number 70 is Louis Armstrong, baptized on August 25 and given the birthday of August 4. Now we're 21 days away. Next, baptism number 71, done on August 25 is for a child born on JUNE 30! Nearly two months before. McCusker says August 4 has to be true because "those notations in the register happen in real time." They were indeed happening in real time on August 25 but the birthdays of the kids being conceived varied from 10 days before until almost two months earlier. When I mistakenly wrote on Facebook that a "clerk" wrote the above, McCusker corrected me and said it was the priest and insinuated the priest is the most reliable source. But that priest wasn't there when Mayann delivered Louis and if she remembered it being July 4, I don't know why she gets discounted entirely.

Again, I have all the respect in the world for John McCusker and for Tad Jones. They spent a lot more time with this stuff than I have. And I sure as hell didn't set out to write the "definitive" argument for July 4, 1901. Yes, August 4 could still be 100% right, but how can anyone say that based on one certificate? When that priest wrote those words in the book, there was a variety of things that could have gone wrong to make him write August 4 instead of July 4. And because July 4 is so close to August 4 and because I don't think Louis's beloved mother and grandmother would forget his birthday so soon after he was born and tell him July 4 for no reason, I can't fully embrace August 4. I won't say this with the 100% certainty of McCusker but I'd at least like to keep an open mind and say July 4, 1901 is sure a possibility.

Also, I'm also not coming from a "romantic" point of view; I don't care when we celebrate Pops! The first Armstrong book I ever read was the Giddins book so I've never questioned August 4--until seeing the 1910 article and the social security application. Now....who knows; I think July 4, 1901 sounds pretty damn plausible but I'll be celebrate on both dates just as I've always done!

So, as I ended yesterday, I'll end again today: Louis Armstrong performing "The Star Spangled Banner" at Newport in 1960. Celebrate!


5 comments:

RICHIE said...

Bravo Ricky! You keep digging man but I go with what Pops believed for the date and celebrate the man every day of the year.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am grateful for the confusion. It allows me to hear not one but TWO Louis Armstrong birthday broadcasts every year on WKCR. For me, July 4th and August 4th will forever be associated with Louis Armstrong and struttin’ with some barbecue.

Unknown said...

It's something of a cultural construct anyway - the 'birthday'. That we today think it *must* match some empirical reality is just a reflection of a certain time and place culturally, if you look at it.

For most of human history, even a proper name has been a title. And a birthday might be symbolically chosen even if it wasn't strictly speaking 'true'.

That Pops would align his own birthday with the start of twentieth-century America is fully excusable. He's the best thing America ever produced.

Old Balls said...

Cornel West? If he's an Armstrong fan, my opinion of him has gone through the roof.

"Jazz Lives" @ WordPress.com said...

Dear Ricky,

You are a fine and honest scholar. May I suggest that you consider writing a book on this Louis fellow? Oh, I forgot. You already did and it's a marvel.

So . . . I go back to the original point. My guess is that even in Back O'Town, Mayann might have seen something in the sky -- not bullets -- and her view has a certain indisputable primacy. My guess is that she was functionally (ll)literate, and I don't envision her as having a wall calendar from the local Shell station hanging on the kitchen wall. But the association with the Fourth of July is powerful for me. And if we're going to discount her experience, then that's just rude. One doesn't call a lady a liar or a fool.

Ultimately the precise date has less relevance than the knowledge we have that Louis EXISTS. And he gives us a happy birthday whenever we are aware sufficiently to douse ourselves in his shining spirit.

Happy Louis to you, to everyone! And thank you.