Thanks to the Internet and email, people don’t write nearly as many letters by hand as they once did. But thanks to the Internet, the Englishman Shaun Usher has been able to produce a lively blog, “Letters of Note,” that publishes some of history’s most interesting letters for all to see. Usher’s blog, available at lettersofnote.com, has yielded a beautiful new book, also called “Letters of Note,” that reproduces some of the blog’s best material.
That’s how we came across a letter with special interest to Louisiana. It’s a long response, penned in 1967, from Louis Armstrong to a soldier in Vietnam. About Armstrong, you already know. A native of New Orleans, he became one of the most iconic jazz musicians of the 20th century, his songs and image known around the world.
That’s why his letter to a man now known to us only as Lance Cpl. Villec is so remarkable. By 1967, Armstrong was a world celebrity, someone who presumably got lots of fan mail each day. That he would answer Villec is striking; that he would write so long a letter is something of a miracle. The letter is also memorable for its candor and conviviality. Although Armstrong and Villec has apparently never met, Armstrong writes to his admirer as if they’ve known each other for years. The man that millions knew as Satchmo reminisces about his youth in New Orleans and his musical inspiration. Armstrong even mentions, a bit indecorously, his favorite laxative, Swiss Kriss.
It’s an open-hearted letter, full of generosity, as expressive of the essential joie de vivre of Armstrong’s native state.
To read the letter is to be reminded, even today, why we still enjoy getting a handwritten note in the mail. A letter carries so much of the sender’s personality with it. That’s certainly true of Armstrong’s letter to a lonely soldier in Vietnam. Armstrong discloses, as his fingers glide across the stationery, that it’s the “’Wee ‘hours in the Morning. I’ve Just ‘finished ‘Work. I am too ‘tired to ‘raise an ‘eye ‘lid. Tee hee.”
The punctuation hints at Armstrong’s lack of formal schooling, and it’s timing reminds us of his night owl work hours, the occupational hazard of playing in jazz clubs. And there is, inevitably, music in the letter, too. Armstrong can’t sing to Villec in person, so he does the next best thing — writing out for his fan, lie by line, a verse from the inspirational standard, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
From Louis Armstrong International Airport to the numerous evocations of Satchmo in New Orleans, the city recalls one its legends all the time. Thousands enjoyed music and fun during the 14th annual Satchmo SummerFest this month. But that tribute to music did not capture all the man, as his letter to a far-off soldier demonstrates.
What a comfort that must have been to a soldier far from home, facing an uncertain future. And what a comfort it was for us to read that letter from a Louisiana legend, all these many years later.