“Brother Bill” by Louis Armstrong & Bing Cosby

This piece (“Brother Bill”) is obviously comedic in nature, and it harps back to a time before the ubiquity of television whereas story-based songs tended to be a lot more descriptive. And in this case the narrative has two main characters – Brother Bill and the vocalist, who refers to him as such. 

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Louis Armstrong's Brother Bill at Lyrics.org.

But that noted, it seems as if the vocalist refers to himself in the third person throughout the second verse, or that perhaps said passage is the only part of the song being relayed from the perspective of Bill.

The Story of “Brother Bill”

So the featured story centers on a hunting trip that Brother Bill and the vocalist went on. What happens, “up in the hills of Maine”, is that they come across an animal “that looked like a grizzly bear”. But upon shooting it, in the eyes of the narrator “the doggone thing turned white”, which is not normal when you shoot a creature. So he gets spooked, drops his gun and proceeds to haul a*s.

Initially, it does not seem that Brother Bill is likewise frightened by the shot animal. But the way the narrator reacts startles him also – so much so that, by the looks of things, Bill nearly shoots his companion in the process. But ultimately he decides to follow the narrator’s lead and run away also. 

The Punchline!

And the punchline of the comedy, if you will, is Brother Bill and the vocalist being collectively depicted as “the first four-legged jet”, i.e. so afraid of this unusual occurrence that they were running at “the speed of light”, uphill even.

Story with Symbolism?

But that said, if we wanted to get a little bit more imaginative with what this story may symbolize, well to note it was written by Armstrong at a time when allegories alluding to race relations, etc. were quite common in Black American music. 

So it is possible, going a bit out on a limb, that as originally intended both the narrator and Brother Bill are Black hunters. And they behold what appears to be a grizzly bear, shoot it and then come to realize that it is rather a “White” person, which is why the latter and then the former flee the scene. 

Such incidents, i.e. actually shooting a person, are quite common on hunting trips, which is why now in most states hunters are required to wear fluorescent orange or what have you. So let’s say that upon seeing what appeared to be a bear turn White, the narrator concluded it was actually a White person. And back in those days, a Blackman couldn’t go to court and be like he accidentally shot a White.

But again, that’s just an entertaining conspiracy theory concerning this song. Presumably back in those days, a lot more people hunted than they do now. And even if a listener has never done so, this is an easy-to-understand comedy, you know, getting a kick out of a grown man being inexplicably and infectiously scared for his life.

Louis Armstrong's "Brother Bill" Lyrics

Facts about “Brother Bill”

Apparently this is a song that Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra originally dropped way back in 1939. At that time, the song came out under the title “Me and Brother Bill”. 

But the more notable version of the tune is simply entitled “Brother Bill”. This notable version is a collaboration between Armstrong (1901-1971) and one of his mutual A list contemporaries, Bing Cosby (1903-1977). 

The song is part of an entire collaborative album they dropped, “Bing & Satchmo”. FYI, Satchmo was Armstrong’s nickname.

“Brother Bill” was written by Louis Armstrong.  And this version of the song was produced by Simon Rady.

Brother Bill

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