Louis Armstrong is known for his rendition of “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.” In many respects, the song could be biographical of many people you meet on the street. Isn’t it true that the little boy behind the man is often purposefully camouflaged so nobody knows? Yet, the little boy behind the man weighs heavily on the need to orchestrate or to avoid orchestrating a repetitive pattern of behavior or circumstances. Some times hard work, a resolve to do things differently and an opportunity latched onto and ridden for all it is worth, proves to be the catalyst for life to turn out differently than one might think.
Armstrong is not the composer who wrote the lyrics to, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”. Yet, the lyrics could be true for Armstrong himself. He was born into an impoverished family in New Orleans. His story is much like the story of the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” that I referenced a couple of weeks ago. Armstrong learned early about the trauma of broken relationships and childhood abandonment. In his infancy, his father left his mother for another woman. In the midst of that bitter disappointment, his mother abdicated her responsibilities as a parent and left Louis and his older sister in the care of their grandmother and at times his uncle. At the age of five, his mother repositioned herself to be responsible for his care and he subsequently resided with her, her relatives and an ever-increasing number of step-fathers.
The little boy behind the man he subsequently became attempted to financially provide for his mother during his childhood. He worked as a paperboy, hauled coal and sold discarded food to restaurants, but none of it was enough to keep his mother from working the only trade she knew and that was prostitution. To say that his life wasn’t a bed of roses is an understatement.
Armstrong’s exposure to music came through listening to the bands that played in the brothels and dance halls. At the age of eleven, Armstrong dropped out of school and joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. He also was taught to play the trumpet by a band member.
Looking back on the days of his childhood, he credits music with giving him something for which to live. He said: “Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine – I looked right in the heart of New Orleans…It has given me something to live for.”
A Jewish immigrant family that owned and operated a junk hauling business provided him odd jobs and emotional support. He reportedly started working for them at the age of seven. What he learned from him is that they salvaged more than junk. In the truest sense, they salvaged him and provided him a level of nurture and support he had never known. They treated him like family and sheltered him from discrimination.
They too, from his opinion, were the subjects of extreme discrimination and ungodly treatment by white folks who thought they were better than the Jews. He says of them: “I learned from them how to live – real life and determination”. Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant given him by that family for the rest of his life.
The little boy behind the man often has a very different story than the one that subsequently emerges. Last night, the General and I had dinner with a couple young enough to be our children. The man shared some information about his dad’s childhood that he recently learned.
In fact, many of you may have seen a picture of the man’s father. It really is a small world. In his adolescence, the man’s dad was forever captured as one of the boys playing basketball in a Norman Rockwall painting. Rockwall’s paintings captured the best of American life. He said of his paintings: “Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfect place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it wasn’t an ideal world, that it should be, and so I painted only the idea aspects of it”.
The man sharing his father’s story said, “My dad recently shared with me that he never had a bedroom until he and my mother got married. His family lived in a small two- bedroom home in Stonebridge, Mass”. You may be familiar with Stonebridge, Mass. It is well known as the home of the Norman Rockwall Museum. What is not so well known is some of the hardships that accompanied families just outside the rustbelt of industrial America.
So, how does a family of five negotiate making a two bedroom home function for their family? In this man’s case, as luck would have it, he was the odd man out. His parents had their bedroom and his two sisters shared the other bedroom. The home also included a screened in porch. That adds a whole new concept to be the “odd man out”. He slept outside on the screened in porch. Can you imagine surviving a winter sleeping outside on a screened in porch is Massachusetts?
What would it be like as a three-to-four-to-five year old child hearing the sound of the door close behind you? The very thought hurts my heart even if the outside temperatures weren’t an obstacle. I can’t imagine the level of terror that had to accompany that experience from a young child’s perspective.
In the early years, as a little boy, he was sent outside to sleep under the warmth of quilts. One of his parents would subsequently carry him back into the house and place him on the living-room couch after the rest of the family had gone to bed. I surmise that the man’s story is filled with a multiple of different hardships. Like Norman Rockwall said: “The world wasn’t the perfect place he thought it to be.” I’m sure that same reality was true of the child, adolescent and young man that never had a bedroom until he got married.
The little boy behind the man is often purposefully camouflaged so nobody knows.
All My Best!