Noted writer, historian and former This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell is the author of books like The Wordy Shipmates, Assassination Vacation, and Unfamiliar Fishes. If in New Orleans, she’ll likely pay a visit to the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). She might also check out some of Louis Armstrong’s old haunts.
But don’t count on Vowell to spend any time in Jackson Square.
“So here’s my problem with you people,” said Vowell, via telephone from her home in New York City. “You have this whole thing for Andrew Jackson that I find completely abhorrent. I know he’s like the great hero of the Battle of New Orleans or whatever which, by the way, is a battle he won after that war was already over, but thanks to slow communications he had no idea, but anyway, this is the battle where he makes his name and becomes a national hero and becomes president just in time to establish this Indian removal policy that gets my Cherokee ancestors, their whole land taken away from them and marched at gunpoint by the United States Army across the continent to Oklahoma where I was born.
Hear the interview.
“So from a Cherokee household, there’s no difference between him and the devil. So you guys have that whole square with that big statue of him on his horse and everything, so I find your Andrew Jackson fixation to be a little bit off-putting.”
But don’t worry, New Orleans. Growing up in Montana as an aspiring trumpet player, Vowell said her absolute teen idol was Louis Armstrong. “So you’ve got that going for you,” she said.
And when Vowell says she was obsessed with Satchmo, she means it.
“There were a couple years there, maybe I was around 14, and I got it in my head that if I just listened to this one Louis Armstrong album, every night before I went to sleep, it would just rub off on me and I would figure out what he was doing.
“I had this bootleg recording of some live concert Louis Armstrong did in Paris, so like every night of my Montana adolescence I would just go upstairs to my room and fall asleep in Paris with Louis Armstrong, and obviously my trumpet career kind of died, but … I really miss my time in Paris with Louis Armstrong sometimes.”
While Vowell’s musical career may have waned, Armstrong’s music influenced her writing.
“He would sing that song, ‘That’s My Desire,’ and there’s the part that goes ‘drink a little glass of wine, gaze into your eyes divine and feel the touch of your lips pressing on mine,’ and when he would sing it, he would say, ‘I feel the touch of your chops all wrapped up amongst mine,’ and I would just puzzle over that because I knew what he did was better writing, but it didn’t really jibe with what I was learning in English class. And I still have that kind of in me. Sometimes if I’m writing something and it’s too stiff, I think less ‘your lips’ and more ‘yo chops.’”
Hear The extended version of Brian Friedman’s interview with Sarah Vowell.
While the English classes Vowell took growing in Montana may not have been the best preparation for Louis Armstrong, the music education she was afforded was surprisingly good, she said.
“Arts education is something I really care about, because I was a beneficiary of a great arts education,” she said. “I come from a working-class family and I went to this public school in Montana that had this amazing music program and I grew up thinking I would be a musician. I was probably 20 years old before I figured out I didn’t have any talent, but in the meantime, I had this great adolescence full of all of these programs and the discipline that you get growing up playing music and the community aspect of that.”
And that’s why her trips to New Orleans in recent years always include a trip to NOCCA.
“The first time I spoke at NOCCA, I just fell in love with that school,” she said. “I think one of the reasons I like it, besides it’s an amazing school with all these wonderful facilities and really nurturing teachers, is that I really loved the students.
“They were all incredibly appreciative of that school and the opportunity of going there because they all have to go their regular schools and parochial schools part time, so they know that they’ve been handed this utopian place and they’re all incredibly excited about it and grateful for it. So I just fell in love with that school, and I think after the storm, I kept coming back there to speak and bring other speakers to that school as the school kind of tried to get back on its feet.”
“My heart belongs to that school,” she added. “I just think it’s one of the greatest public institutions in this country.”
Vowell has also dabbled in film, voicing the character of Loraine in 2004’s The Incredibles.
“I really loved that whole experience,” said Vowell. “I loved every part of it. I learned so much about that whole process of how those movies get made and the lighting and the music and the technology.”
In a way, though, the role was a race against the clock.
“The character I played had really long flowing hair and at that point the technology wasn’t there to make that girl’s hair, and so almost until the end, my character — in all the versions I saw up until it was done — was bald, because there was this team of guys up in a room somewhere working on her hair, and every so often the producer would go up there and ask, ‘How’s the hair going, guys?’ And they were still like, ‘The hair is still theoretical.’ I mean, it was just such an amazing thing to be part of and to watch them work, because I don’t really have coworkers in my job.”