Onkel Satchmo Behind the Iron Curtain:
The Transatlantic Politics of
Louis Armstrong's Visit to East Germany

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2014, Volume 13, Issue 1


Daniel Stein
Freie Universitaet Berlin

For about a decade now, non-American scholars have had it relatively easy to justify their foreign perspectives on the United States. Enlisting Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s call for a transnational American Studies (2004), they have been able to point out that their work is contributing to a better “understanding [of] how the [American] nation is seen from vantage points beyond its borders” (20), allowing us to “see the inside and outside, domestic and foreign, national and international, as interpenetrating” (21). If Fishkin rightly demands a focus on “borderlands, crossroads, and contact zones that disrupt celebratory nationalist narratives” (19) and wants us to imagine our field as “a place where borders both within and outside the nation are interrogated and studied, rather than reified and reinforced” (20), then scholars from within as well as from without the United States may have something to offer to the ongoing project of a transnational American Studies. 

Of course, Fishkin was not alone in her assessment. Heinz Ickstadt had already discussed the role of non-American scholars as “outside observer[s]” (550) who should “make greater use of their outside-position by asking questions [...] concerning transatlantic relations, and the flow of cultural exchange” (555), while Winfried Fluck would argue that “the original goal of American studies – the analysis of the cultural sources of American power – continues to be as urgent as ever” (29) and that, “far from going outside the United States, we have to go back inside” (28). Seeing the inside and outside, domestic and foreign, national and international, as interpenetrating – asking questions about transatlantic relations and the flow of cultural exchange – going outside of the United States in order to go back inside: these are the critical maneuvers I want to undertake in this essay. Focusing on what Fishkin calls “[t]he cultural work done by U.S. popular culture abroad” (33), I will examine Louis Armstrong and the All Stars’ concert tour through East Germany in March of 1965. I will be treading on largely unexplored territory here. Studies of the jazz tours sponsored by the American State Department have reconstructed moments of resistance to the national projections of imperial power and cultural exceptionalism that characterized the international endeavors of so-called jazz ambassadors like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Louis Armstrong – I am thinking of Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (2004), Lisa Davenport’s Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era (2009), and my own chapter on Armstrong’s politics in Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz (2012). But in these publications, Armstrong’s visit behind the Iron Curtain resides at the margins of analysis, and so the aim of this essay is to establish this visit as a central moment of jazz history as well as a rich example of German-American relations during the Cold War era.

In particular, I want to argue that Armstrong’s East German appearances on- and offstage were framed by, but that they also produced, a set of narratives that connected the American civil rights movement with Cold War antagonisms and fell on fertile ground in the Eastern part of Germany. As I aim to show, the fact that Armstrong grew up in the poorest section of racially segregated New Orleans equipped him with a particular habitus that allowed for a special rapport between the black American musician and his East German audiences. What I will also suggest is that his personal experience with the color line resonated deeply with the political realities of life behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic and that Armstrong’s visit brought these resonances to the fore.

Let me begin with a crucial observation by historian Thomas Borstelmann, whose words will serve as a backdrop for my analysis of the tour:

The story of domestic race relations and American foreign relations over the past half-century has had a particular geography. The narrative encompasses most of the globe, [...] but the states of the old South loom especially large. It was there, south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the hundredth meridian, that human relations along the color line conflicted most sharply with the nation’s pursuit of a ‘free world’ abroad. (3)

Armstrong and his All Stars left the United States on March 9th, 1965, for an Eastern European trip that would include concerts in countries that, from an American standpoint, were decidedly unfree: Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The East German leg of the tour included eighteen concerts in five cities and attracted about 50,000 people. For East German officials, booking Armstrong was a publicity coup, particularly since the GDR was hoping to become recognized as a state by the anti-communist West. In addition, Armstrong had been embraced as Onkel Sachmo on several concert tours through West Germany since the 1950s, while the East had been deprived of any direct encounters with the beloved entertainer and seemed to be lagging behind culturally. So the All Stars performances in East Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, and Schwerin were charged with a heightened degree of political symbolism.

As Armstrong, vocalist Jewel Brown, trombonist Tyree Glenn, clarinetist Eddie Shu, pianist Billy Kyle, and drummer Danny Barcelona were about to embark on their journey, however, the civil rights demonstrations at home turned bloody. On March 7th, about six hundred protesters began their non-violent march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, in order to take a public stand against the systematic racial discrimination of African Americans. As the marchers were about to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by Alabama state and local police forces, whose aggressive assault was broadcast on televisions across the world. The televised images of this “Bloody Sunday” created an outcry not only in the United States, where they helped sway public sentiment towards a broader acceptance of the civil rights movement and the dismissal of Southern Jim Crow politics through the Voting Rights Act, but also abroad, in states that opposed the American government and sought to foil what they saw as its imperialistic foreign policies.

“Bloody Sunday” reminded Armstrong’s East German audience of the racial divisions in the United States, and it inspired Armstrong to address these divisions in public. As Down Beat magazine reported, the musician stated that he “became physically ill after watching a television news program showing Selma Police action against civil rights marchers in the Alabama city” (14); he also told the New York Times that the Southern police “would beat me on the mouth if I marched. [...] [T]hey would beat Jesus if he was black and marched” (11). He wondered further: “How is it possible that human beings can still treat each other that way? Hitler is dead a long time – or is he?” ("Armstrong Speaks" 14-15). These statements, which Armstrong made at Kastrup airport in Denmark en route to Czechoslovakia and which associated the Jim Crow South with Nazi Germany, were widely reported, and they were also heard in the divided German states. The West German weekly Die Zeit cited Armstrong’s comments in its “words of the week” segment on March 19th, and it juxtaposed them with a racially incendiary statement by Selma sheriff Jim Clark, who had said: “I believe that those cannibals in the Congo will cry about the Niggers that get beaten on the head here. After all, they are blood brothers” (n.p.). In East Germany, the state-run Artists’ Agency spoke of Armstrong’s “worldwide recognition that strengthens the struggle of the American Negroes for their human rights” (qtd. in Schulz 12). This assessment singled out the United States as a country whose internal politics were to be criticized in the court of world opinion, and it sought to reposition the GDR from an allegedly unfree communist country to a place where racial freedoms were guaranteed to all.

But this was not the end of the story. Only hours after the All Stars had landed in East Berlin, Armstrong gave a press conference. Asked whether he supported the American civil rights movement, he responded on a television broadcast:

They have other people, politicians, who take care of things like that. And so the best I can do is put a little something in the till, and that’s my part. That’s the best I can do, because I love everybody. I mean, the white people, they are my greatest fans all through the South. [...] We stay in the best hotels, and they give us the best courtesies, and my biggest audience is people all over the United States. So I can’t abuse either one. So I don’t need to march or whatever it is. I just do my little part. [...] I play benefits for all causes, don’t have to be equal rights. ("Die Mauer")

What we encounter here in Armstrong's words is a conscious attempt to resist enlistment for any political platform, even though Armstrong is clearly sympathetic towards the civil rights movement. What we also see is that his denial of political involvement is accompanied by an emphasis on universal humanitarian aid: “I help everybody,” he went on, naming “the afflicted” and “retarded children” as examples of his charitable engagements.

Having positioned himself vis-à-vis internal American politics, Armstrong received a question about foreign affairs when a reporter inquired about whether he had visited the Berlin Wall. “I saw the wall. I don’t worry about the wall, I worry about the audience I’m’a play to tomorrow night,” he insisted, and then noted: “See, when you get into the concert hall, forget about everything, and concentrate on Satchmo. I can’t say what I wanna say, but if you accept it, I’ll say it. Forget about all that other bullshit” ("Die Mauer"). When Ernst Zielke, the General Director of the Artists’ Agency, expressed satisfaction about the fact that all political questions during the press conference had been asked by the journalists from the Western side of the Iron Curtain, Armstrong shot back: “Whatever side. I don’t care where it is” ("Die Mauer"). Here, then, we get the sense that Armstrong was not supposed to speak out politically, but we also witness a willingness to express his mind anyway: international conflicts, political divisions, and borders between people are “bullshit” and should neither get in the way of his interaction with audiences nor spoil the pleasures of his performances.

The press conference produced a significant media echo. News services sent their reports around the world, and Time magazine noted that Armstrong had skillfully skirted the inevitable questions about race and politics. The Milwaukee Journal highlighted the differences between Germany’s Nazi past and the current political situation in socialist East Germany. In an article titled “‘Live Cats’ in East Reich Go Wild Over Satchmo," the writer conflated the Third Reich with the GDR as “East Reich” and asked its readers to recall the Nazi ban on American jazz: “Satchmo blew his horn and sang his favorites where a few years ago his kind of music was forbidden” (8). Not surprisingly, the East German press reacted very differently, turning to issues of civil rights violations in the American South and foregrounding the particular geography of transatlantic Cold War relations. The lead article of the Liberal-Demokratische Zeitung, a regional newspaper controlled by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, observed:

Today the famous American Negro musician Louis Daniel [sic] Armstrong with his All Stars and vocalist Jewel Brown perform in the district capital Magdeburg after tumultuous success in Berlin and Leipzig. As he is teasing great notes from his trumpet, a colored person may be dragged to death in one of the states in the American South. As Satchelmouth is waving his [...] white handkerchiefs, his brothers in the USA turn to the streets to risk their lives for their equal rights. As the “King of Jazz” is moving his audiences to enthusiastic responses with his lively show, the dark-skinned citizens of the United States are not allowed to attend the same schools as whites, take the same bus, or spend the evening in a bar together in the Southern part of the country. Magdeburg does not know such racial delusions; Dallas and Texas conserve it anew daily, mocking the American Declaration of Independence from 1776 [...]. Armstrong has never remained mute about his brothers’ freedom movement. He took a stance that was met with angry counter-reactions on the part of white racial fanatics. (qtd. in Schulz 165)

The article makes a distinction between a racially tolerant and free Magdeburg, contrasting America’s violations of its founding principles with the East German audience’s appreciation of Armstrong’s performances and lauding the musician for his willingness to criticize racial discrimination. The language of this passage, especially phrases such as “dragged to death,” “racial delusion” (“Rassenwahn”), and “racial fanatics” (“Rassenfanatiker”), associates the Jim Crow South with the systematic persecution of the European Jews. Furthermore, it contradicts the Milwaukee Journal’s view of East Germany as an ideological successor to the “Third Reich,” charging the Southern regions of the United States with human rights violations instead.

Apart from his public statements at the press conference, Armstrong and his All Stars used the performative space of the live show for bits of comedy that bear further analytical scrutiny. One example is Armstrong’s humorous reference to the pleasures of eating traditional German Eisbein – a dish of pickled pork knuckle that the musician particularly liked and would order throughout the tour. After the All Stars had performed “The Faithful Husar,” a jazzy version of an old German folk song, Armstrong announces: “We gonna keep it rollin’ for you, uh, Eisbein, I mean, uh, Eisbein, uh, hahahaha.” This announcement conjures up what I have called Armstrong’s “intermedial autobiographics” in Music Is My Life: his media-crossing autobiographical commentary in interviews, writings, live performances, and on recordings. Mentioning the German pork knuckle dish evokes his repeated celebrations of Southern foods like red beans and rice and various kinds of “soul food,” which were typical fare for the poor black folk of New Orleans during his youth and which he would continue to cherish when he moved first to Chicago and then to New York in the 1920s. So when he talked about Eisbein on stage, Armstrong did not just suggest that he enjoyed food East Germans would have seen as their own; he also signaled to them that he saw a connection between Southern foods, his own eating habits, and the culinary offerings of their country. This gesture indicates a communal bond between performer and audience that was meaningful exactly because it found commonalities when others insisted on cultural distinctions and political boundaries.

Apart from such seemingly innocent comedic moments and their subdued political subtexts, there is nothing overtly political in the two surviving recordings of concert performances at East Berlin’s Friedrichstadt-Palast. Given Armstrong’s self-imposed mandate to “please the people” and shy away from onstage political commentary, this is hardly surprising (Meryman 116). Nonetheless, some of the songs the racially integrated All Stars performed do sanction a political reading. Take “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue,” a tune from the old Hot Chocolates Broadway show that laments a black women’s grief over her skin color by suggesting that she is “white inside” and that her “only sin” is “in my skin.” Armstrong had popularized the tune when he recorded it in 1929, and he had played it in 1956 in a televised performance for Ghana’s Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah during his first trip to Africa. But he had removed it from his repertoire after the Little Rock crisis in 1957. Enraged that Little Rock High School would not allow black students to attend, Armstrong had publicly criticized Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and President Eisenhower for their unwillingness to enforce the school’s racial integration, and he had been barraged by a vitriolic Southern backlash. That he revived the song for his East German tour can be read as a conscious protest against the civil rights violations at Selma. Updating the lyrics for the occasion, Armstrong changed the line “I’m white inside,” which indicates a normative understanding of white superiority, to “I’m right inside,” rejecting whiteness as the ultimate measure of personal worth and supplanting it with an affirmation of black racial identity (this interpretation is indebted to Riccardi 230-237).
This lyrical change, however minuscule, was important because it created a moment of resistance to the dominant narratives of American democratic exceptionalism that jazz musicians were supposed to promote especially in regions controlled by socialist and communist governments. And there were other, equally important moments of resistance. At the end of one of his East Berlin shows, Armstrong came out behind the theater curtain to take his final bows in his bathrobe. One could read this peculiar act of informality as part of Armstrong’s cunning self-mockery or as the spontaneous reaction of an exuberant black performer who forgets proper decorum because he is so overwhelmed by his popular reception. Yet it seems that Armstrong was doing much more: he was crossing the boundaries between private and public, backstage and onstage, offering audiences a peek at what usually stays behind the theatrical curtain. Perhaps it would be too far-fetched to read this appearance as an obviously symbolic violation of the political powers of national borders, especially the Iron Curtain between East and West Germany, communist Eastern Europe and democratic America. But I do think that it is suggestive of exactly the kinds of activities that were part of what Robin D. G. Kelley calls the “politics of the everyday” of African Americans in the segregated South: the “dissident political culture” of those who practiced “everyday forms of resistance” in order to heighten the limited “pleasures [...] of black communities under segregation,” for instance through humorous “daily conversations, folklore, jokes, songs, and other cultural practices” (8, 35).

Armstrong also insisted on smoking on stage despite the non-smoking law in GDR concert halls. What might seem like a tiny gesture of defiance may again point to something much larger when we think of it as part of the communication between the African-American performer and his East German audience. Even though the audience could not have known that Armstrong had been explicitly asked by the state-run Artists’ Agency to abstain from smoking on stage, they would certainly have realized that the musician was ignoring the official smoking ban. Such rebellion, Armstrong’s actions suggested, makes other forms of resistance possible. It can actually be viewed as a more or less non-threatening means of resisting government-imposed rules and regulations. It seems that such forms of resistance were answered by several audience members who recorded parts of the All Stars concerts on film even though this was strictly prohibited. And even outside the walls of concert venues, Armstrong’s presence encouraged individual acts of civil disobedience when newspaper reporters neglected their official assignments to coax the musician into making pro-GDR and anti-American statements and instead asked questions about Bix Beiderbecke and Armstrong’s favorite music, thus straying from the strict party line by acting as America-friendly jazz aficionados.

All in all, I believe that my brief analysis of Louis Armstrong’s 1965 visit to East Germany allows us to see an American nation during the Cold War from a particular vantage point beyond its borders. This vantage point indeed disrupts celebratory American but also East German nationalist narratives and singles out the live performance and the interpersonal encounter between American musicians and East German audiences as contact zones from which new political meanings arise. Significantly, it was a black musician versed in the political subterfuge of Southern communities under racial segregation and a jazz performer with a keen sense of personal and political ambiguities who teaches us to “see the inside and outside, domestic and foreign, national and international, as interpenetrating” (Fishkin).

So when the project of a transnational American Studies urges scholars to move their analysis of American cultural power outside of the nation in order to gain a better view of its internal constitution, I believe that my assessment of Armstrong’s East German tour and my readings of German-language sources have been worthwhile endeavors. And indeed, I think it is fair to say that Armstrong himself benefited from going outside the United States: visiting a divided Germany and experiencing life behind the Iron Curtain, he seems to have connected the civil rights violations of the Southern Jim Crow system with a larger, and potentially global, understanding of political resistance. It may be true that he was giving himself a little too much credit when he recalled the publicized instances when fans crossed the Iron Curtain into West Germany to hear him play on an earlier tour: “Unify Germany? Why, man, we’ve already unified it. We came through Germany playing this ol’ happy music, and if them Germans wasn’t unified, this ain’t ol’ Satchmo talking” ("Sayings" 87). But this statement certainly implies a wish for a united America, hoping for an end to the corruptive effects of the nation’s internal racial borders between black and white, North and South, and believing in the powers of music to support the struggle for worldwide equal rights.



This essay is a revised version of a conference paper I presented as part of the “Jazz and the Voices of Empire and Resistance” panel at the American Studies Association conference in San Juan (18 Nov. 2012).  I want to thank the panel organizer John Gennari as well as Sherrie Tucker for their useful feedback and valuable comments.

I derive much of the historical information about Armstrong and the All Stars' East German tour from Stephan Schulz's What a Wonderful World as well as Ricky Riccardi's What a Wonderful World.

All English translations of German sources are mine.

Works Cited

“Armstrong Speaks Out on Racial Injustice.” Down Beat 22 Apr. 1965: 14-15.

Borstelmann, Thomas. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Davenport, Lisa E. Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009.

“‘Die Mauer interessiert mich nicht’: Louis Armstrong im DDR Fernsehen.” Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk 22 Aug. 2011. Television broadcast. Now available online at http://www.mdr.de/damals/armstrongddrfernsehen100.html

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies – Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004.” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 17-57.

Fluck, Winfried. “Inside and Outside: What Kind of Knowledge Do We Need? A Response to the Presidential Address.” American Quarterly 59.1 (2007): 23-32.

Ickstadt, Heinz. “American Studies in the Age of Globalization.” American Quarterly 54.4 (2002): 543-62.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: Free Press, 1996.

“‘Live Cats’ in East Reich Go Wild Over Satchmo.” The Milwaukee Journal 24 March 1965: 8.

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. Satchmo: Live in Berlin Friedrichstadtpalast. The Legendary Berlin Concert. 22 Mar. 1965. Jazzpoint, 2000. CD.

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. Satchmo: Live in Berlin Friedrichstadtpalast. The Legendary Berlin Concert Part II. 22 Mar. 1965. Jazzpoint, 2000. CD.

“Louis Armstrong Scores Beating of Selma Negroes.” New York Times 11 Mar. 1965: 11.

Meryman, Richard. “An Authentic American Genius: An Interview with Louis Armstrong.” Life 15 April 1966: 92-116.

Riccardi, Ricky. What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. New York: Pantheon, 2011.

“Sayings of Satchmo.” Ebony Dec. 1959: 87.

Schulz, Stephan. What a Wonderful World: Als Louis Armstrong durch den Osten tourte. Berlin: Verlag Neues Leben, 2010.

Stein, Daniel. Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography, and American Jazz. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2012.

Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.

“Worte der Woche.” Die Zeit 19 Mar. 1965: n.p. http://www.zeit.de/1965/index


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