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When it comes to the development and innovation of jazz, few names carry as much weight as Louis Armstrong. His contributions comprise many of the distinguishable elements of jazz, including scat singing, improvisation, solos, and swing style. A unique vocal timbre, and strong character allowed him to transcend racial stereotypes and become popular among many groups. The success of “(What did I do to Be So) Black and Blue,” originally written by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf, aptly illustrates the power of his music in a country wrought by racial tensions. Although his interpretation of the song significantly differs from the original, it is uniquely representative of the characteristics of jazz in the 1920s.


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Syncopation, polyrhythm, rhythmic repetition, and swing style or blues are considered to be common elements of jazz music in the 1920s. Louis Armstrong exhibits many of these characteristics in his rendition of “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue. ” The distinct licks and breaks of his trumpet that can be heard in the beginning moments of the song illustrate his fondness for improvisation. Later, Armstrong’s gravelly vocals are complimented by familiar jazz instruments like the piano, tenor saxophone, trombone, and trumpet to create a slow bluesy rhythm. At this time, Armstrong combined solo improvisation with New Orleans Style jazz to further innovate his sound. By the mid-1920s, jazz songwriters were “the most sophisticated generation. . ever assembled” (Deveaux p. 95). Inspired by Armstrong’s improvisation, writers were able to create music that was more sophisticated than “blues and ragtime strains that had served their predacessors” (p. 95). Armstrong’s innovations in improvisation, singing, repertory, and rhythm helped propel Armstrong’s fame in the 1920s and solidified his role as “the single most important figure in the development of jazz” (Deveaux p. 108).

Today, “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” is regarded as one of America’s first “racial protest songs” (Singer p. 219); However, the song was originally intended to outright mock the hardships faced by blacks. New York gangster Dutch Schultz ordered Andy Razaf to write the song for the 1929 Broadway musical “Hot Chocolates. ” Schultz envisioned a “colored girl” on stage singing about how hard it is to be “colored” (Singer p. 216). After refusing, Razaf was threatened at gunpoint by Schultz until he conceded to write the song. Determined to write it in his own way, Razaf evaded Schultz’ intentions and “stripped bare essences of racial discontent that had very rarely if ever been addressed by any African American” (Singer p. 219). The sympathetic yet humorous tone taken by Razaf was well received by audience members after it was slipped into a tryout performance just before its Broadway opening. The song grew in popularity largely because of Razaf’s poignant commentary on “interracial prejudice between lighter- and darker-skinned blacks” (Singer p. 217).

After hearing the song and recognizing its significance, Louis Armstrong created his own rendition by heavily altering the song’s lyrics and underlying meaning. By omitting much of the original song’s satirical elements, Armstrong created a song that possesses a more sincere and realistic tone. He begins with the lyrics: “Cold empty bed/springs hard as lead/feel like old Ned/wished I was dead/what did I do/to be so black and blue. ” The first lines of both the original song and Armstrong’s rendition portray the poverty associated with African American life; However, Armstrong’s version presents a slightly darker and more hopeless depiction of African American morale during the 1920s. For example, where the original song contains the words “Pains in my head”, Louis chooses to include the words, “wished I was dead. ” Armstrong ultimately removed much of the original song’s text but retained its core message with the lines, “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue? ”

In addition to differences in form and text, Louis Armstrong’s performance of “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” occurred in a more serious setting and contextual background. Where the original song was intended to surprise and amuse a predominantly white audience in a Broadway theatre, Louis Armstrong sought to educate others with its message in an intimate way. When first performed by Edith Wilson on a stage “awash in white”, the original song “induced loud laughter in the audience” (Singer p 218). Andy Razaf “craftily littered the opening verse with humorous, minstrel-like images” in order to satisfy Dutch Schultz’s demands but bravely decided to include his own sympathetic message (Singer p. 219). He did this, knowing full well that if Schultz was displeased with the result, it could have meant the end of his life.

In contrast, Louis Armstrong chose to send a message by first recording the song for Okeh’s “white” label rather than it’s “race” label (Singer p. 220). By both removing the satirical elements and accenting the sullen aspects of the original, Armstrong created his own statement about the oppression of Blacks. His nuanced vocals and distinctive trumpet playing creates an atmosphere and tone vastly different from the original. Armstrong’s subsequent performances and recordings increased the song’s popularity and helped it become a historically significant protest against discrimination.

At the time of the song’s release, racial tensions in America were at an all-time high. Thanks to Armstrong’s mainstream acceptance and popularity, his messages reached a broad range of audiences and helped start conversations about topics that were formerly taboo. For this reason, I believe that Louis Armstrong was a uniquely effective advocate for racial tolerance and equality. As Armstrong’s influence grew, his music was able to educate more and more people about the hardships faced by African Americans. The resulting cultural and political ramifications transcended his popularity as a musician. Despite growing up in a time of poverty and segregation, Armstrong was always generous and welcoming. In the 1950’s, Armstrong was “widely accepted as a national ambassador of good will” (Deveaux p. 109). His colleague Duke Ellington described him as “the epitome of the kind of American who goes beyond the rules, a truly good and original man” (p. 109).

Louis Armstrong’s cultural and political significance was evident when the musician traveled to Africa in 1956 and performed his song “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” to a crowd of 100,000 people. His rendition “brought Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to tears” (Deveaux p. 125) and inspired many. Jazz ambassadors, including Louis Armstrong, were loved and respected throughout the world for their “brilliant creativity, their irreverence, and their wit, and for all the ways in which they voiced their affinities with peoples struggling for freedom” (Von Eschen p. 258). During his tours in the South, Armstrong exclusively performed with an integrated band comprised of both blacks and whites. On July 6, 1971, the death of famed Louis Armstrong was “mourned worldwide” (Deveaux p. 125).

In conclusion, Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” was a significant milestone not only for the history of jazz, but also for the history of civil rights in America. His innovations and talent precipitated a shift in how jazz composers approached song writing. By making significant changes to the original, Armstrong was able to accent the political message behind “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” in a way that exemplified the emotions of African Americans in the 1920s. His influence on the music of his era both as an instrumentalist and as a singer remain “unmatched” (Deveaux p. 107).