And thou shalt say unto him ... Ha'Shem, the G*d of the Hebrews, hath sent me unto thee, saying " Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness, and, behold, hitherto thou hast not hearkened"
~ Shemot 7.16 ~
My Mom (OBM) loved Louis Armstrong & I grew up listening to Louis a lot. I don't remember the first time I heard this track, but over the years I've become acquainted with the tale behind it. It is perfect for Pesach (and Pollard's continued unjust incarceration in 'the land of the free' ensure it's topicality!).
"Go Down Moses" is what used to be known as an American 'Negro Spiritual', popularised not only by Louis Armstrong but others too. The opening verse as published by the Jubilee Singers in 1872 is ....
- When Israel was in Egypt's land: Let my people go,
- Oppress'd so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
- Go down, Moses,
- Way down in Egypt's land,
- Tell old Pharaoh,
- Let my people go.
But that is not the tale I want to concentrate on this Pesach. I want to focus on Louis Armstrongs attitude to Anti Semitism in America, which I originally gleaned from the history of this song itself. If you haven’t seen it, there is a highly fascinating article that appeared in Commentary in 2009 entitled “Satchmo and the Jews.” Observing that Louis Armstrong was equally beloved as a man by those who knew him as he was admired for his monumental contribution to American music, his biographer Teachout also notes that he was apparently “devoid of personal prejudice.” As a Jew who has known 'predjudice' I would go further.
Armstrong’s lack of prejudice extended to Jews, an attitude that was comparatively rare among blacks of his generation. Outside his marriages, his closest adult relationship was with Joe Glaser, a Jewish 'gangster' from Chicago who became his manager in 1935 and with whom he was intimately associated from then on. Armstrong described Glaser as “my dearest friend,” and those who knew both men well agreed that this was nothing more than the truth.
He was similarly admiring of the Karnofskys, a family of Jews from Lithuania for whom he had worked as a boy in New Orleans. In 1969 he wrote a lengthy memoir of his relationship with the Karnofsky's called “Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.” In it he told of how surprised he had been to discover that they “were having problems of their own ~ [a]long with hard times from the other white folks' nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race. . . . I was only Seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.”
The young Armstrong saw the Karnofskys’ problems up close, for they took him into their family, treating him almost like a relative. “They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me ~ just a kid who could use a little word of kindness,” he recalled. He shared meals with them and borrowed money from them to buy his first Cornet. Thereafter he would identify with the Karnofskys and the Jews of New Orleans so closely that he became an ardent Zionist who always wore a 'Magen David' around his neck (Joe Glaser gave it to him). “I will love the Jewish people, all of my life,” he wrote in “Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family,” adding that he learned from them “how to live ~ real life and determination.”
And the biography of Louis Armstrong, written by the same Terry Teachout, is inspiring and contains this tale along with other lots of anecdotal information. It is well worth a read .... Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. And Satchmo is always a joy to listen to ..... his refreshing Admiration for Judaism and vociferous support for Jews is a welcome respite amisdt the Anti Semitic Avalanche prevalent among 'celebrities' that we usually face in our days. Let's emulate Louis Armstrong Loudly. Let's Agitate for Pollard's release this Pesach.