Termagant Tuesday: “Cultural Exchange,” Louis Armstrong (et al)



Years ago, at a house party in a dodgy part of D.C., I got into what soon became an argument with some random guy while refiling my drink.  I was in my early 20s and very ego contra mundi; with my college degree, international job, and over-priced one-bedroom apartment, I had a lot to prove.  So anyway, I’m at this party.  It’s a mix of people – some international types, some private sector types, probably about fifty people or so.  Some friend of mine from work had brought me, and, after a few whiskey-sodas, I was having a pretty good time.  Robbie Williams, of all people, was on the stereo, I remember that distinctly, and I remember thinking, “why is Robbie Williams playing?!” as I walked to the bar (aka someone’s dining room table) in the corner to get another drink.

Which is where I met this guy.  His name was Jonah.  We did the obligatory “where do you work” tango, and got to talking about his job.  Jonah worked at the State Department facilitating educational exchanges of foreign college students to the United States and vice versa.  Jonah seemed a little down on it, and I pressed him to explain why.  Jonah said that he thought educational exchanges were fine, but really, what encouraged the growth American values abroad was the spread of capitalism.  I furrowed the ol’ eyebrows and said that seemed a bit of a limp argument.  If it were purely capitalism and free markets, why is America a nation of immigrants?  Because America is an idea, and that idea is self-determination.  Capitalism is an expression of self-determination, it isn’t the end-all, be-all.

We parried and thrusted about this for a while until Jonah, whose stock value was rapidly decreasing, snorted and said something like, “well, I mean, come on: the Soviet Union.”  To which I responded, “uh…what about the Soviet Union?”  He said, “blue jeans, man.  People wanted to buy blue jeans.”  I arched an eyebrow.  “You mean to tell me that, according to you, we brought down the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War with…pants?”

I probably should have left it there, but, well, I didn’t, and I battered him on how the greatness of America lies in the delicate balance between the power of the market and the power of the individual and how people wanted the choice of what kinds of things to buy (like pants), and so on.  If I’d been able to continue, I would have added the power of music – especially the freedom encapsulated in jazz.  But I think Louis Armstrong articulates this far better than I did.  And I bet no one tugged at his elbow and gently suggested maybe it was time to go.

From reports on Dizzy Gillespie
It was clear to the local press he
Quelled the riots in far off Greece
Restored the place to comparative peace
That’s what we call cultural exchange.

When Diz blew, the riots were routed
People danced and they cheered and shouted
The headlines bannered the hour as his
They dropped their stones and they rocked with Diz.
That’s what we call cultural exchange.

Yeah! I remember when Diz was in Greece back in ’57.
He did such a good job we started sending jazz all over the world.
The State Department has discovered jazz
It reaches folks like nothing ever has.
Like when they feel that jazzy rhythm
They know we’re really with ’em.
That’s what we call cultural exchange.

No commodity is quite so strange
as this thing called cultural exchange.
Say that our prestige needs a tonic?
Export the Philharmonic.
That’s what we call cultural exchange!

We put “Oklahoma” in Japan.
“South Pacific” we gave to Iran.
And when all our neighbors call us vermin,
We send out Woody Herman.
That’s what we call cultural exchange.

Gershwin gave the Muscovites a thrill (with Porgy and Bess)
Bernstein was the darling of Brazil (and isn’t he hip?)
And just to stop internal mayhem
We dispatch Martha Graham.
That’s what we call cultural exchange
That’s what we call cultural exchange

Yeah, and if the world gets whacky
We’ll get John to send out Jackie!
(You mean Jackie Robinson?
No man, the First Lady!)
That’s what we call cultural exchange
That’s what we call cultural exchange.


4 thoughts on “Termagant Tuesday: “Cultural Exchange,” Louis Armstrong (et al)

  1. Jeff

    I know the point of your site is music, and every day I look forward to hearing what work you’re going to introduce here, but I have to say I look forward to your introductory remarks just as much. Man, the writing. What a well-told story today.

  2. Thank you, Jeff, that’s very cool of you to say. *I* have to say, I enjoy writing the remarks as much as I enjoy introducing the music. I had forgotten all about that party until this song came on my stereo a few days ago and it all came flooding back. Strangest thing.

  3. Karl Mueller

    It’s got some terrific moments in the lyrics, the sort of thing that puts me at risk of descending into curmudgeonly grousing about how the kids nowadays don’t know how to write good rhymes anymore. But Jeff’s right about the storytelling, too.

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