So Black and Blue

Ralph Ellison, above, writes in Invisible Man, his 1952 novel about race in America:

Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my [apartment], and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue ”— all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument [the trumpet] into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music . . . Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.

“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?” is a song by pianist and composer Fats Waller, with lyrics by Andy Razaf; it was written for the score of Hot Chocolates, a 1929 Broadway musical with an all-black cast. The original context for the song is a plot line about colorism, in which a dark-skinned woman loses her love interest to a lighter-skinned woman.

Louis Armstrong made his Broadway debut in the show’s pit orchestra, and recorded the song for Okeh Records later that year.

The lyrics:

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Pains in my head, feel like old Ned
What did I do to be so black and blue?

No joys for me, no company
Even the mouse ran from my house
All my life through I’ve been so black and blue

I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
I’m so forlorn. Life’s just a thorn
My heart is torn. Why was I born?
What did I do to be so black and blue?

I’m hurt inside, but that don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
How will it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Tell me, what did I do to be so black and blue?

In his book Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination, Erich Nunn writes:

The song’s lyrics proclaim the superficiality of visible racial difference, proposing an understanding of race as skin-deep. While calling attention to the arbitrary significance of skin color in the verses, however, the song [also] ironically points to a normative . . . whiteness . . . “Black and Blue” balances the relative frivolity of the Broadway show tune genre with social satire and critique.

Do you agree that Louis Armstrong meant to present the song as ironic social commentary?

While on a European tour in 1965, Armstrong watched news footage of the beating of civil rights protesters in Selma. Although he hadn’t performed the song in many years, in a concert in East Berlin a few weeks later, he

revived “Black and Blue,” but with a crucial lyric change. He sang, “I’m right inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” The song concludes, “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” Armstrong had turned “Black and Blue” into a song of racial protest, one that he would continue to play for the rest of his life.

Watch that performance here, and notice that Armstrong very pointedly changes the lyric at 3:27.

How does this change alter the meaning of the song in its entirety? Does the change of one word change the song’s entire message?