Remembering Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, Part I

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Howard Armstrong and Barbara Ward, Credit: Elisa HaberAcclaimed musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong is renowned for a lifetime of jazz, blues, folk and country music. Armstrong was the subject of not one, but two POV films over the years, Louie Bluie (1988) by Terry Zwigoff and Sweet Old Song (2002) by Leah Mahan. Armstrong’s roots in America’s musical past, his accomplished musicianship and his sly and charming personality led the National Endowment for the Arts to honor him as a “national treasure.” Armstrong passed away at the age of 94 in 2003. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday this Wednesday, March 4, 2009.

In honor of Armstrong’s memory, we’ll be streaming Sweet Old Song in its entirety on the POV website for the months of March and April. We’ll also be posting several tributes on the POV Blog this week. Below are the thoughts of POV filmmaker Leah Mahan, who spent several years with Howard Armstrong and his wife Barabara Ward making Sweet Old Song.

Leah MahanLeah Mahan: “Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Sweet Old Song at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, a grand Art Deco movie house from the 1920s. It was the opening film of the First International Film Festival on Aging. After the screening, a man in the audience was nice enough to stand and say he felt the film was a gift. For me, the time I spent with Howard Armstrong and Barbara Ward Armstrong while making the film was a gift that grows more precious with each passing year.

Howard and Barbara, as I hope my film conveys, shared a deep love for one another that transcended a difference in age. They were soul mates on so many levels and I was fascinated by the ways that they brought out the best in each other and supported each other creatively and emotionally.

I am so appreciative today of the friendship and trust that they offered me in allowing me to make Sweet Old Song. I’m also thankful that I met them at a time in my life when I had the freedom to spend long hours listening to their stories and conversations and watching them create their art and music.

I have such fond memories of arriving at their apartment with my equipment in tow. Howard would most often be seated on the couch and would hold out his hands to take mine. When I knelt down to unpack my camera the loud zipper would always make him exclaim, ‘That thing can almost talk!’

Howard’s short-term memory was failing him but his memories from decades before were so vivid. I never got tired of hearing stories that I’d heard many times before. And Barbara clearly didn’t mind either.

Howard was aware that his memory was playing tricks on him and he had ways of relying on Barbara to help him, without admitting it. When he was performing he’d turn to the band and ask what they’d like to play next. Barbara would call out a song (from the set list they’d worked out together) and he’d jokingly say, “Well, we have a request from the drummer.” The audience loved it.

Howard died in July 2003, just a year after the POV broadcast of Sweet Old Song. Although he’d been slowing down, he’d been healthy and active until several months before. I was so glad that Howard was able to enjoy the release of the film, with appearances and concerts in Boston, Chicago, Nashville and Knoxville.

Howard Armstrong (2nd from right) with his brothers, Courtesy of Howard Armstrong

Howard Armstrong (2nd from right) with his brothers. Courtesy of Howard Armstrong.

The screening of Sweet Old Song last week in San Francisco was one of several events that are planned this year — including the streaming on the POV site and a screening this month at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville — to celebrate Howard’s centennial. He was born March 4, 1909 and his parents, Daisy and Thomas, named him William Howard Taft Armstrong — after the president who was inaugurated that same day. He saw so many dramatic changes in his lifetime, and I can’t help but wonder what Howard would think of the inauguration of President Obama. I wish I could go knock on Howard’s door and spend a long afternoon finding out.”

Read Part II of Remembering Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong in which Barbara Ward Armstrong remembers Howard through the lyrics of a song he often sang to her.

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