Racism in Music: “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer

Racism can be discussed as a pain of the American society that is reflected in music, art, and literature because of the people’s need for expressing their feelings on racial oppression and discrimination. In this context, jazz as a music style that began to develop in the 1920s became the most racially colored musical movement in the United States. In 1929, Fats Waller and Andy Razaf wrote the song “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” like the reflection of their existential pain associated with the problem of racism.

The song was performed in the most ironical manner in the Broadway show “Hot Chocolates.” However, the song became a jazz standard after the performance of Louis Armstrong, who paid more attention to focusing on the deep emotions and soreness of the blacks hidden in this song. In this context, it is important to answer the question of why Armstrong’s variant of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” is usually discussed as the declaration of the problem of racism in the United States.

The extreme popularity of the song among the black population can be explained with references to the fact that Armstrong changed the original lyrics to accentuate the social meaning of the composition and elaborated the sound; still, the uniqueness of the song performed by Armstrong is in his ability to tell the social and personal story of racism in musical terms.

The song was composed by Fats Waller for “Hot Chocolates,” and this song was originally performed by Edith Wilson. It is important to state that the song was composed in order to entertain the public of the show and to make the audience laugh at the fate of blacks. Dutch Schultz, the sponsor of the show, expected to hear the humorous lyrics that could demonstrate the feelings of miserable blacks.

That is why Andy Razaf chose to focus on representing the personal feelings of the dark-skinned woman who suffered significantly because of being alone in the world of blacks. The comic words were supported with sorrowful tunes, and the combination of different moods really made the public laugh. However, the song acquired a new meaning when it was interpreted and recorded by Louis Armstrong.

It is important to state that Armstrong was one of the most talented trumpeters of the discussed musical era, and his songs attracted the attention of the wide public. As a result, Armstrong’s variant of the song’s words made a significant resonance among the white and African American audiences. The words proposed by Louis Armstrong variant influenced each African American because the musician presented the problem as related to all blacks’ hopes and sufferings.

In his lyrics, Razaf concentrated on the comic story of the African American girl who felt loneliness because of being black, and the author directly focused on the problem of intra-racial prejudice because it was the matter for discussing in the white elite circles. Thus, Edith Wilson sang in the show about the personal pain of the black woman who stated, “Browns and yellers, all have fellers, / Gentlemen prefer them light, / Wish I could fade, can’t make the grade, / Nothing but dark days insight”.

Nevertheless, Armstrong chose to remove that verse, and he emphasized the general idea of racial discrimination, making it familiar to each black in American society. When the verse about the woman’s feelings was removed, the main focus was brought on the feelings of the black person who suffers significantly from racial isolation. From this point, the words of the song were not associated with the gender aspect anymore. Therefore, Armstrong sang, “I’m white, inside / But that don’t help my case / Cause I, Can’t hide / What is in my face.”

It is possible to state that the words in Armstrong’s variant of the song become socially colorful and acute because of the author’s focus on the pain and even despair of each African American in the racially segregated society.

More bitterness was felt with the focus on humorous words about the empty house where there was not even a mouse to accompany a black man. Thus, Armstrong’s version of the lyrics can be discussed as powerful and touching because it makes the audience understand the significance of the discussed problem for the whole society and each person.

Nevertheless, the uniqueness of Armstrong’s performance is in his use of trumpet solos in many compositions. Armstrong’s approach to integrating solos in the songs made a significant impact on jazz music in the 1920s. Jazz was a specific musical phenomenon that originated from the sounds and approaches of ragtime and blues. Improvisation became the characteristic feature of this music style, and Louis Armstrong added significantly to the progress of the jazz sound during the 1920s-1930s because of his masterly trumpet solos.

When Armstrong chose to elaborate “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” he also changed the initial verse in the song with the impressive and sad trumpet solos that could illustrate the depth of suffering of blacks in the United States.

It seems that Armstrong’s trumpet cries along with any black woman or man who feels lonely and oppressed in the world of whites. Armstrong also changed the musical pattern of the song while focusing on the recitative vocal style that added the unique acuteness and depth to the song whose role was to discuss the socially problematic issue.

While focusing on “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” in the context of its social significance, it is important to state that the song became an effective attempt to discuss the problem of racism in the American society made by the person who was respected by both whites and blacks. Thus, Louis Armstrong was not only the talented trumpeter and soloist, but he was also the person with an active social position. His ideas regarding the problem of racism were listened to by the authorities and by the public.

From this perspective, Armstrong’s variant of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” can be discussed as the loud announcement of the problem of racism in American society. Armstrong could be heard by the wide audience even in spite of the fact that critics often stated that Armstrong was primarily working for the white elite of American society. Still, it is important to note that the song became the statement of blacks’ needs and desires in the American society expressed by Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong’s variant of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” can be discussed as a sensation in the world of jazz music in the 1920s because it was not only the perfect musical composition but also the socially important statement related to the problem of racism in the American society. Armstrong’s interpretation of the song originally written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf for the Broadway show is the reflection of the pain typical for the whole race living in the United States.

The comic song performed by the famous trumpeter became an ironical illustration of the painful problem of discrimination in American society. Referring to Armstrong’s improvised sound of the song, it is possible to state that the song demonstrates the unique bitterness of the blacks’ fate in the United States during the 1920s.

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