Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and blackface

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Steve Voce refers (Still Clinging 04/19) to Bing Crosby’s relationship/friendship with Louis Armstrong. This association was based on mutual respect and affection. Louis’s comments regarding being at Bing’s home were very hurtful to Bing, and he regretted not being more sensitive regarding the issue and he always assumed that Louis was often away and too busy. Contrary to Louis’s comments about Cary Grant(?), etc., Crosby was notorious for seldom, if ever, inviting anyone to his home, and kept a very insular private life. Crosby never failed to actively and emphatically promote Louis and his work and career at every opportunity.

Regarding blacking up, Crosby was born in 1903. Minstrelsy was still a thriving part of the American scene. It would have been near impossible for a music fan in those days to avoid the tradition.

Bing was hardly alone in his blackface appearances on screen, which numbered four out of a total of some 60 or so film appearances. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Martha Raye, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and, of course, Eddie Cantor & Al Jolson also appeared at one time or another in blackface during their careers. There is a long, slow-dying tradition of racism in American music and entertainment; it’s part of our history, unfortunately.

Bing was naive (as were many others) as regards the injustice of the minstrel tradition. But it was part of our culture, and as a musical performer in the early years of the last century, he came up through the tradition. It was inevitable.

I do not, however, feel that he deserves to be remembered as some sort of beacon of racism, when in fact, so much of his work and his history reveals him to be quite the opposite.

Read Gary Giddins’ books, A Pocketful Of Dreams and Swinging On A Star.

Thanks for reading my rant.

Arne Fogel, Minneapolis, USA

Steve Voce replies: If you read the more than a thousand pages of Gary Giddins’ two-volume biography of Bing (as I have done) you will find that Bing regularly and frequently invited friends to his home to visit or to stay.