Monday, June 12, 2006

Show 18 - Joe Louis is the Man

Show 18 - Joe Louis is the Man

Many songs were written about Joe Louis over his career from 1934 into the fifties. The songs reflect Louis’ status as a kind of a folk hero to black America and eventually to all of America. Louis was born Joe Louis Barrow to a family of sharecroppers in Alabama. He moved as a child with his family to Detroit. Louis was a popular fighter well before he became the champ. His 4th round knockout of former champ Max Baer made him famous. But the fight that made him a hero to millions of African-Americans was in 1935 against the giant Primo Carnera. Louis fought the Italian as the world was becoming aware that Mussolini’s Italy was about to invade Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. As one of the few African nations remaining uncolonized, Ethiopia was a point of pride for the black world. Joe Louis came to represent Ethiopian strength in America. People throughout the U.S. rejoiced when Louis handled Carnera easily knocking him out in the sixth round. That same year, Memphis Minnie recorded two songs about the Brown Bomber and pianist Joe Pullum recorded “Joe Louis is the Man.”

Joe Louis had become a hero in the ring with his frequent victories. But in 1936 he suffered a devastating loss to German Max Schmeling. Despite the loss, the next year, Louis managed to become heavyweight champion by defeating Cinderella Man Jim Braddock. Even with the belt, the loss to Schmeling weighed on Louis and he never felt like the true champion. In 1938, Louis got his rematch against Schmeling. In the years since the first fight the exploits of Adolph Hitler had become common headlines and once again Louis was thrust into the role of representing American values and strength against an enemy. This time, Louis became the hope of not just African-Americans but virtually the whole country. Louis destroyed Schmeling. A new hero, Joe Louis became one of the country’s biggest celebrities.

Joe Louis enhanced his status as American hero when he joined the army to serve during World War II (which some referred to as Louis-Schmeling III). He appeared constantly in newspapers, magazines, and elsewhere. The importance of a black man achieving this iconic status at that time in America cannot be overstated.

Despite deteriorating abilities in the ring, Louis’ career continued into the fifties, largely because of tremendous financial difficulties. He owed millions to the IRS. His last professional fight was his 1951 loss to Rocky Marciano. After his death in 1981, the champ received a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery. What Louis did along with other athletes like his friends Jesse Owens and later Jackie Robinson changed the attitudes of millions. His reception presented a stark contrast to that of the last black champion, Jack Johnson. This was reflected in the blues songs as well as songs by Sonny Count Basie, Cab Calloway and others. Louis’ life and career through the Second World War made him perhaps the most important athlete in American history and a natural hero in the world of the blues.

Joe Louis is the Man - Joe Pullum
Joe Louis Strut - Memphis Minnie
He's In the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing) - Memphis Minnie
Joe Louis Special - Jack Kelly
Joe Louis Blues - Carl Martin

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