Swinging a Joke

Heard any good jokes lately? No? Well, then visit me at the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, housed at Queens College. That's where I serve as Archivist, in charge of all of Pops's stuff: his trumpets, his reel-to-reel tapes, his photographs, his sheet music, his manuscripts, his books, his records...and his jokes. Oh, the jokes.

Louis loved telling jokes. He loved hearing jokes. And he loved collecting jokes: dirty jokes, corny jokes, ethnic jokes, poems, toasts, you name it. Starting some time probably in the late 1930s, Louis began typing his favorite jokes into book form. The first two books have apparently not survived, but we do have a large volume from 1943 that Louis calls his "third" anthology. He explains this in his "Forward," written to an imaginary audience he hoped would be reading this book one day.

But we have more than the joke book. Louis loved including jokes in letters to friends and fans, often opening with a short risque poem. His reel-to-reel tapes are filled with hours of Louis and friends in dressing rooms and hotel rooms swapping jokes. And when the spirit hit him, he wasn't afraid to tell a joke or two during his stage shows with the All Stars.

Bud Freeman once said that "Louis swings more telling a joke than most others do playing a horn." Unfortunately, I can't share the treasures from Armstrong's archives--come to Queens College--but there are two commercial examples of Louis telling two separate jokes that make for a fine illustration of Freeman's point.

Over and over, for decades, Louis would walk into a recording studio, be handed some written lyrics and asked to turn them into gold. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the same thing happened when he told his favorite jokes.

Let's start with probably Louis's best-known joke, the "Alligator Story." Louis always made it autobiographical, mentioning his mother and her hometown of Boutte, Louisiana. But in actuality, Louis lifted the joke from blackface comedian George Williams, who told it to Louis when they shared a bill with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the late 1930s. Here's Louis writing to Leonard Feather on October 1, 1941, relaying the joke (I have left all of Louis's unique punctuation marks and misspellings but did change one typo; he consistently spelled "pond" as "pound" and I didn't want it to cause confusion):

"While I was looking at Mr. Singleton's Alligators while he was feeding them-I told him the one that George Williams the Blackface Comedian whom works with the great Bill Robinsons Shows, and is very funny man - indeed he is . . . That 'Cat Kills, Me-just to look at him on the streets with his makeup off . . . So I told this one to Mr. Singleton since we were around Alligators and also on the subject . . . He (George Williams) said-when he was a little boy living way out in the country-one day his mother sent him down to the Pond to get a Pail of Water . . . She said - Boy run down to the Pond an fetch me a pail of water right away . . . So he went runnin down to this pond to get this water and the minute he went to dip his pail into this water he looked overthere and spied an Alligator lying in this water . . . George said he'd gotten so terribly frightened until he clear forget to get the water and immediately started to runnin to home . . . And no sooner then he'd gotten to the porch of his home his mother said to him-Boy - Wheres that water that I told you to get? . . . And George said-Mother-theres, an Alligator in that water-and his mother said--Aw-Boy-go an get me that pail of water-don't you know that 'that Alligator was 'As' Afraid of you as you were of him - and I said (sez George) well mother-if that Alligator was as 'Afraid of me as I was of him-that Water Isn't 'Fit To Drink. . . . . . . . . . . . . I guess he told he something . . eh? . . ."

Louis began telling this onstage with the All Stars (the earliest version I have is from 1953) and numerous examples exist of him breaking up concert audiences with it. But probably my favorite version comes from the making of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy in 1954. Producer George Avakian asks Louis to say something into the microphone to get a balance and Louis immediately responds with the "Alligator Story:"

What I love most about it is by personalizing it, Louis leads Avakian and the studio guests to think he's actually telling an autobiographical story. There's no, "Oh, here's a joke for you!" He almost starts deadpan, talking about the town in Louisiana and everything and BOOM, there goes the punchline! And listen to it while reading his typed version. He recites it quicker, knows how to edit the extra stuff, adds some strong new phrases (I love "big old rusty alligator") and overall improves the joke.

Another Armstrong favorite was the "Hamburger Story." This one I have traced back to one of Louis's friends, Redd Foxx. Louis adored Redd and had many of his albums. Joe Muranyi told me about playing Vegas in the late 1960s and seeing Louis and Foxx carrying on together offstage. Foxx told his joke as "Ham and Eggs":

"Guy goes every day to the same diner, looks over the menu, and always orders the same thing: ham and eggs. Every day, the same thing: ham and eggs. Waitress decides to play a trick on him and scratches it from the menu. He comes in, she says, 'You know that thing you like so much? I scratched it.' 'Well, wash off your hand and get me some ham and eggs.'"

Short and sweet. This one still lives on; a quick Google search led me to a Reddit upload of a similar joke as recent as 2014. But once again, Louis takes this material and makes it his own. For one thing, he changes it from "ham and eggs" to "hamburger." I know of his telling it four times in public--at a concert in New Orleans in 1952; at a Boston dinner thrown in his honor by George Wein also in 1952; in a video of Louis telling it to Duke Ellington onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1970 (the video only includes the punchline); and finally, Louis tells it to Hoagy Carmichael onstage at his 70th birthday tribute at the Shrine in Los Angeles. It was clearly one of his favorites.

But for me, the New Orleans version is my favorite. In between sets of an All Stars concert, there was a whole ceremony onstage to unveil a photo of the deceased clarinetist Leon Rappolo. Myra Menville, the secretary for the New Orleans Jazz Club, then gave Louis a certificate of merit and a key to the city on behalf of mayor DeLessups Morrison. It's a very nice little moment and Menville sounds read to move on when Pops grabs the mike to say a few words. Here, then, is the complete hamburger joke:
Isn't that great? I love how Louis always fakes the audiencse out with the "I just scratched what you like" line. The audience breaks up just at that (Menville clearly thinks it's over). Louis senses it and leaves a gigantic pause (master of timing). Then he lowers the boom with the real punchline and the REAL hysterics begin. Great stuff.

And like I said, Louis loved to underplay these jokes at seemingly inopportune times: a recording studio sound check; while being honored at a dinner in Boston; when about to unveil a portrait of a deceased musician; he once told the alligator story on stage in Africa as a "speech" at the end of a concert in 1956. It killed every time.

Finally, there's the "rye bread" joke, which Louis told onstage at the National Press Club in Washington DC on January 13, 1971. Recently, while going through one of Louis's note books from December 1970-January 1971, I found "THE SAGA OF THE JEWISH RYE BREAD" wiritten in Louis's handwriting. What follows is what he wrote:

"A young fellow went to a Jewish Doctor and told the doctor he was worried because he could not get an erection. Whereupon the doctor told him to eat Jewish Rye Bread. So on his way home, the young man stopped a Jewish Bakery and asked for 25 Loaves of Rye Bread. The Baker said--25 Loaves? - it will get hard before you get rid of it. Whereupon the patient in excitement said Give Me 50 Loaves.'''"

It's obviously an old joke and variations of it can be found online. Where did Louis get it? He was in Vegas when he compiled the notebook so maybe another comedian told him. It's also written without any of his usual "tics" so he might have copied it from a joke book. But he clearly liked it enough to tell it on stage in Washington a short time later. Here is how it came out:

This is probably the best example of Louis improving a written joke. Look at the way he wrote it: "Whereupon"? Twice? Interestingly, the notebook Louis wrote it in was mostly filled with lyrics. He started it in late 1970, obviously feeling well enough to go back to performing. He alphabetized the book from A to Z and began jotting down song titles. Then, for each song, he wrote the lyrics. There's some staples like "What a Wonderful World" but also newer material such as tracks from Louis Armstrong and His Friends and Louis "Country and Western" Armstrong. There's even old favorites like "I'm Confessin'" and "If We Never Meet Again." Many pages, though, are blank, probably because ill health stopped him in his tracks; he wrote all the titles of Dave and Iola Brubeck's Real Ambassadors score but never got around to the lyrics; was he really planning on singing some of those songs live one day?

But at the very end of the book, he wrote his "Daily Routine," a list of his main set from the Tropicana in Las Vegas, where he performed from December 26, 1970 through January 8, 1971, listing "alternate numbers" to be rotated in and out each night as well as a list of "Tunes to Call," songs he felt comfortable calling at this late stage in his career. This was clearly a book he was studying as he began performing again: lyrics to songs, a set list, an index of tunes....and a handful of written jokes.

He probably studied the joke just like he studied those lyrics and like he did with music time and again, knew how to make it his own, make it better. Again, listen to it while looking at how Louis wrote it down. It's now about his friend and instead of outright saying "erection," listen to how Louis draws out the phrase "trouble with his lower extremitiessss." Instead of a bakery, it's now a "delicatessen." (Great word.) And though the punchline is the same, Louis adds the part about the friend "smiling," pauses, and once again, wammo. Hysterics.

If you've ever seen me preach about Pops in public, I always defend his comic timing, saying that making people laugh and nailing the timing of a joke is harder than hitting a high C. The music community applauds the high C but gets uncomfortable around the jokes. I'll admit it: they're not GREAT jokes. But Louis's versions are great. Was "Somebody Stole My Break" a great song? "You've Got Me Voodoo'd"? "Ko Ko Mo"? No, but Louis's versions are great.

If you've made it this far, I'd like to add a little lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans. This is a joke that we do NOT have audio of Louis telling, I'm sorry to say. But it is clearly written in his voice and answers a question: "What the hell is 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' about?"

On November 30, 1943, the Nat King Cole Trio recorded "Straighten Up and Fly Right," the story of a monkey and buzzard in a tussle. From such source material, Cole had a hit record, one that is still performed today. Here's the original:

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As you can imagine, such tales of animals have a deep tradition in American and African-American folklore, such as the Uncle Remus stories. While searching around Google, I found this American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress. In it, it has the transcription of a story simply called "Monkey and Buzzard" and related by Cora Jackson, wife of Virginia blues musician John Jackson. This is how Cora told it:

"There was the old buzzard. He wanted something to eat, and he went, first thing, he asked the old terrapin, said, 'You wanna take a ride?' Said, 'Yeah.' He hopped on his back and flied way up in the air, and he dropped him down and he busted him all to pieces, and he eat him up. Well, next, it was . . . the rabbit or something he picked up. It was the rabbit. He asked him, and he flew way up in the air with him, and he turned him loose, and he dropped him, and he eat him up."

"And then he came across a monkey. He flew way up in the air with the old monkey holding on. He said, 'Don't go too high. I get the swimming in the head.' 'Oh, no, I'm gonna give you a good ride.' He went way up in the air with this old monkey, so when he got ready to drop the monkey, that old monkey wrapped his tail around his neck. And he said, 'Hey, Mr. Monkey,' say, 'You choking me.' He said, 'Straighten up, damn you, and fly right then.' That broke the buzzard from carrying the monkey up in the air and dropping him on the ground."

Okay, now the King Cole song makes sense. It's a folk story that had probably been around forever and teaches some lesson about, I don't know, choking people who are trying to kill you or something. (Kidding.) I'm sure Cole knew, but I'm almost certain he knew the version that Louis wrote in his surviving joke book, which, again comes from early 1943. Here it is, in Louis's typewritten style (I haven't changed a thing) and most importantly, his voice:


The Buzzard*Rabbit*Monkey

Mr. Buzzard was Flying very low oneday and he saw Mr. Rabbit down on the ground minding his own business and all of a sudden Mr. Buzzard stopped his flying around and circled down to where Mr. Rabbit was eating ‘Cabbage – Grass—or—somthin . . . Anyway – Mr. Buzzard had his personal reasons for wanting to get down there besides Mr. Rabbit . . . . So he tells, Mr. Rabbit – How ‘doo ‘Br’er Rabbit – would you like to take a “Ride” up in the Air on my back? . . ‘T’would do yourself some good I’ll assure you . . . . So it did sound very good to ‘Br’er Rabbit . . . Sooo—right away ‘Br’er Rabbit said—Mr. Buzzard – I really don’t care if I do . . . And ‘Br’er Rabbit got on top of Mr. Buzzard’s Back – UMP—for the last time of his life . . . Because the minute Mr. Buzzard gotten ‘way up there into the Clouds-he commenced to ‘Wavin ana ‘Bobbin-with poor ‘Br’er Rabbit on top of his back which frightened ‘Br’er Rabbit terribly . . . But it didn’t do any good ‘at all . . . Because the minute Old Buzzard gotten to where he wanted to ‘Ditch Br’er Rabbit he made a funny kind of move and ‘Threw ‘Br’er Rabbit off of his back and Killed Br’er Rabbit Instantly . . . . Then Brother Buzzard flew back down to the ground where Br’er Rabbit ‘lay dead and ‘Ate him up for his Breakfast . . . . . . .


Now dinner time approached . . . . So quite naturally Mr. Buzzard came back down to earth to see what on earth could he see to ‘eat for his dinner . . . . . So he ran across Mr. Monkey . . . . . Mr. Monkey all sharp as a tack . . . Struttin down the lane to see his best gal . . . Mr. Buzzard appears on the scene where Mr. Monkey was . . . . . And said—How ‘Doo Mr. Monkey – would you like to take a little ‘Spin up in the Air on my back? . . . And Mr. Monkey said –Wel-ll – I don’t think I care – about refusing . . (Meaning) – yes . . . . . Mr. Buzzard (all ‘gayily ‘N’everything-said)-hop right on top of my back and I’ll take you for a ride . . . So Mr. Monkey hopped on top of Mr. Buzzard’s Back and the way they went up into the clouds . . . Now everything was going just fine until Mr. Buzzard’ started to making one of those ‘funny mysterious-Loop’De’Loops . . . . So Mr. Monkey he being a ‘hip’d youngster-immediately threw his ‘Tail around Mr. Buzzard’s Neck . . . Now Mr. Buzzard didn’t want to say anything to Mr. Monkey concerning his ‘Tail around his Neck . . . But tried to ‘Off Jive Mr. Monkey by making another one of those ‘Fancy ass ‘Loop ‘De ‘Loops again . . . ‘So Mr. Monkey ‘Tightened up on Mr. Buzzard’s Neck ‘Real Good this time . . . Halfway ‘Strangling Mr. Buzzard to death. That’s, when Mr. Buzzard (halfway choked to death) said to Mr. Monkey—‘Er’wa—Look ‘Out ‘there ‘Mr. Monkey – you have your Tail around my Neck and ‘Ol Man – you are nearly choking me to death . . . So ‘Nix Ol Man – ‘Nix (which means, to stop it) . . . . . Just then Mr. Monkey said to Mr. Buzzard . . . . . Well ‘Straighten Up Mr. Mother Fucker and ‘FLY RIGHT  . . . 

Now THAT is how to swing a joke!


nanciedance said…
Great way ti start my day :o)

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