1967: So long ago; and yet for me, so unforgettable. I was, among other things, oh so young; but a very busy high school choir director/counselor, church organist, performing organist for WFUR (the local Christian radio station), piano tuner, president of the North Grand Rapids Rotary Club, and married, there was little spare time in my life, but one of the luxuries that I did allow myself was being Music Director for the Lowell Show Boat, a perfect replica of a Mississippi paddle wheeler.
It operated for one week during the summer in the small farming community of Lowell, Michigan. Each year the “boat” came down the Platte River, pulled up in front of the Grand Stand and for the next few hours the 5,000 or so spectators witnessed an “old fashioned show boat review.”
The show featured local talent contest winners, the “Show Boat End Men” (who delivered corny, mostly humorous old fashioned jokes), a “Chorus Dance Ensemble,” the “Showboat Singers” (a large volunteer Choir consisting of area high-school age and adult singers), the “Show Boat Orchestra” and me, the Show Boat’s Music Director.
The success of the showboat was largely dependent upon the drawing power of a “Headliner,” a Hollywood Name. Famous entertainers such as Milton Berle, Dinah Shore and Bob Newhart, among others, brought in the crowds. For the 1967 show the headliner selected was Louis Armstrong.
For one glorious week I had the rare privilege to be with, and work in the shadow of, the great Louis Armstrong! It became one of the greatest transforming experiences in my life. I want to relate one incident of that week with Louis Armstrong that ties Louis, my Showboat experience, and the present together.
It was a tradition that on Monday, the opening day of the show, the headliners performed parts of their show material at a noon luncheon. The event, sponsored by the local Rotary Club chapter, was always a sell-out; filling the high school gym. On the Sunday night before the luncheon, I received a call from a representative of the Grand Rapids chapter of the NAACP.
The caller introduced himself and asked me if I was planning on attending the luncheon. I told him that I was, and he then asked me if I would speak to Louis and ask him for a very special favor (a request from the NAACP). Because of all the local racial unrest, the NAACP felt that Louis’s presence would possibly help to lessen tensions in the inner city. I promised him that I would relay the request and that I would do whatever I could to convince Louis to go to the inner-city for a short visit.
On Monday morning, before the luncheon, I had some time with Louis and relayed the request. He thought about it, discussed it with his manager and consented! The stipulation was that the visit would be immediately after the luncheon. I thanked him, found a phone and relayed the good news.
We settled on an address and I would call when we were ready to drive the half-hour drive from Lowell to Grand Rapids. The NAACP folks were overjoyed and immediately began spreading the news that “Louis was coming”
The luncheon was a huge success. The various entertainers presented their best material and then it was time for Louis and his group. He played and sang some of his greatest hits and the audience loved it. Then he paused, for a long time. The audience waited in silent expectation.
The band began to play ever so softly, Louis looked over the audience and then, as only Louis could do, he began to softly speak and sing, “When you walk through a storm hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the storm.”
It was a simple maybe even corny message of hope. I looked around and through tear filled eyes I saw that I was not the only one, mesmerized. At the conclusion of the song there was a moment of silence. We all realized that we were in a holy place, connected to each other by a simple song, sung by a man who was born into, lived, and still was living in our racially divided country. He was like a prophet of biblical times who was calling us to repentance with a message of healing.
Louis knew about the Grand Rapids racial unrest, we had discussed it during our meeting, and in his own way he was preaching a sermon of hope. It became the ending that he used each night to close the show.
Immediately after the luncheon I escorted Louis to the inner-city and I witnessed, in awe, the power of his personality; and his love for ‘“his” community.
And here we are, more than fifty years later, and I wonder – have we learned anything in all that time? When will we begin to realize that all of us are children of one father; equals, brothers and sisters?
Perhaps the lesson lies in a simple story from the Torah, (Old Testament):
Esau and Jacob, brothers, become mortal enemies. Jacob flees to a far off land and prospers. However, when Jacob reaches old age, he desires to make peace with his brother. He returns fearful and, as a peace offering, sends lavish gifts to Esau. They meet, and Jacob bows, seven times. They both weep as they embrace. Esau refuses to accept the peace offering saying, “l already have enough”. Jacob insists, and as he does, he says, ” for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
So, peaceful protesters, “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone”. “All lives matter”, regardless of the color of our skin. When we no longer see color, but see each other as equals, children of the same father, then we too “will see the face of God” in each other, and the “hope in our heart” will become a reality.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He has published a book, “Gerrit’s Notes: A compilation of essays,” which can be found on Amazon. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.