[Above photo taken by Yuzo Sato, May 1970.]
Welcome to the 100th post on the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s “That’s My Home” site! Thank you for visiting and for supporting this endeavor, which was born somewhat out of necessity but which we feel has turned into something special.
“That’s My Home” launched on March 27, 2020, just two weeks after the Armstrong House and Archives closed its doors on March 13 due to the emerging pandemic. Staff spent the first week getting used to Zoom, wondering how long we were going to stay closed, and looking for ways to stay busy from home. As week two started and it looked like we were in it for the long haul, our then-Archivist Sarah Rose came up with the idea of launching a Virtual Exhibit site. Our Archives were digitized thanks to a $2.7 million grant from Fund II Foundation in 2016 and we launched our Digital Collections site in 2018 but with over 60,000 assets to pore over, the results could be a little daunting for the casual Armstrong fan.
Curating stories out of the digitized materials sounded like a good plan–but which stories? Armstrong’s life was so rich and encompassed so many phases–the New Orleans years, Chicago, Harlem, his film career, his overseas status as “Ambassador Satch”–it was difficult to know where to begin. Our Interim Director Jeff Rosenstock had the idea to make the theme about “home” since we were spending so much time in our homes and because our Archives was rich with materials–tapes, scrapbooks, collages, letters, photos, and more–Armstrong compiled when he was at his beloved Corona, Queens abode. Naming it after Armstrong’s 1932 recording of “That’s My Home” was a natural and we launched with this introductory post.
That was all we needed to get started, but we received an unexpected boost when word of the “That’s My Home” site reached Geoff Edgers of the Washington Post, who filed this story on April 13, 2020, following with a podcast on May 1 about Louis’s tapes. Two weeks later, a study came out that during the early days of the pandemic, “Louis Armstrong Is Trending, Billie Eilish Is Not.” We couldn’t help but feel that “That’s My Home” was the secret weapon driving this trend (no disrespect meant towards Billie Eilish).
Some of those early posts still remain among our most popular. If you haven’t checked them out, you can explore what was in Louis Armstrong’s record collection, listen to tapes of Pops warming up, check out Armstrong’s collages, read about his love affair with Queens, and learn about the story of Lucille Wilson Armstrong. On May 11, 2020, we published what remains our most viewed post, an unflinching look at Louis and the Civil Rights Era. Most of these posts were coupled with commentary from the Museum’s own Hyland Harris in the popular “Hanging With Hyland” series.
By late May, we were already starting to wander outside of the “That’s My Home” theme for a 50th anniversary series on the 1970 album Louis Armstrong and His Friends, but soon retreated back to Pops’s den for deep dives into Armstrong’s scrapbooks and tapes that took up much of the summer and fall of 2020. From Louis’s tapes, we also unearthed an Armstrong reading of the Gettysburg Address and some unheard Charlie Parker, which drew lots of attention.
Yet the allure of other facets of Armstrong’s life remained strong, resulting in a series on Armstrong and comedy, the story of Armstrong stopping a civil war in the Congo, the backstory of the famous photo of Louis and Lucille at the Great Sphinx in Egypt, a celebration of vocalist Velma Middleton, and an appreciation of Armstrong’s friendship with Billie Holiday.
As the calendar turned to 2021 and the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s passing stared us in the eye, we embarked on what would end up being a 17 (!) part series on the year 1971, opening with Armstrong’s final public performance at the Waldorf, covering his activities during the final weeks of his life, sharing the story of his final tape and eventually his funeral, before sharing dozens of condolence letters Lucille received upon her husband’s passing.
2021 also found us grieving the loss of Louis’s longtime friend–and a longtime friend of the Armstrong House–Jack Bradley. Bradley’s monumental collection is a cornerstone of our Archives and with so much to choose from (including his legendary photos), we set off to tell the story of Bradley and Armstrong’s friendship. We began when they met in 1959 and ten posts later, have only reached 1964; catch up on the whole series here but needless to say, there’s a lot more of that relationship that we will continue to explore in 2022.
The nature of the Bradley series has gotten us out of Queens repeatedly, into the recording studio for albums with the Dukes of Dixieland and Dave Brubeck and onto the stage of the Bronx amusement park Freedomland and other venues. We even used Bradley as a jumping off point to tell the full story of “Hello, Dolly!” as we’ve never told it before. Our most popular post in December was an exploration of a wild concert Armstrong performed in London for Hungarian Refugees in December 1956 that really had nothing to do with Queens, New York, Jack Bradley or any of our usual themes, but was such a rich story that we wanted to tell it in full anyway. We’ll always return back home, but there’s a lot of stories we’re still excited to use our Archives to tell in future posts.
After 100 posts, we’re still in a pandemic, Covid numbers are surging, and though the Armstrong House is still open for tours by appointment three days a week, our Archives remain closed at the time of this writing. As the Director of Research Collections, I can personally say that I miss being around the Archives and interacting with visitors from around the world. I wish everyone was safe and healthy and we were moving on to post-pandemic times, but alas, we’re not there yet.
But even if we do achieve that goal sometime this year, “That’s My Home” is not going to come to an end any time soon. We have managed to take these gems from our Archives and share them in carefully curated ways that have brought Armstrong’s story out of the stacks at Queens College and into the homes and phones of visitors from around the world–over 140,000 since we launched!
Now, we can’t let you get this far without offering up a little treat. On one of Louis’s tapes made backstage at the Chicago Theater in 1954 is a song called “I Do.” Louis had been dubbing albums by George Shearing and Art Tatum when a woman comes on the microphone and begin singing along with a recording of two guitars playing a pretty melody. The record repeats and this time the woman starts by saying, “second chorus” before singing along.
On the other side of the tape, Armstrong went back to his records before finally playing that same guitar track again, this time with no vocal and only the sound of Armstrong humming along in the background. It repeats, with more humming from Louis. Finally, he grabs the microphone and sings along–beautifully! Looking at the back of Louis’s tape box, he wrote “I Do – Dorcas Cochrane, Eddie Ballentine” and on the bottom right, “I Do Sung By Miss Dorcas Cochrane.”
Dorcas Cochrane and Eddie Ballentine were songwriters and collaborators, with Cochrane best known for penning the English lyrics of Armstrong’s 1951 hit “I Get Ideas”.” She was also a friend of Armstrong’s who lived in Chicago so reading between the lines, it appears that she showed up backstage with a demo recording of her and Ballentine’s new composition with the hopes that Armstrong might be able to work the same magic he did with “Ideas.” Alas, he never did record it (and a quick Google search shows that no one else did either) but his single chorus on tape is quite charming–listen along!
Thank you for indulging us in this look back at our first 100 posts but we’ll leave with a question: what are some of the stories you would like to see on this site? More on Louis’s tapes? More on his overseas travels? More from his record collection? Let us know in the comments below and always remember–Pops is Tops!