Acclaimed musician Howard “Louie Bluie” 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 passed away at the age of 94 in 2003. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.
Over the course of Howard Armstrong’s 80-plus years of playing music, he inspired many musicians with his talent, style and showmanship. In the summer of 2002, we asked a few musicians to write about how Armstrong inspired them and to share a song illustrating how that inspiration was realized in their music. Here are a few outtakes from those interviews. You can read them in full at the Sweet Old Song website.
Taj Mahal: “Well, I got an album of Howard’s way back in the foggy past, probably some time in the 1970s. I can’t remember whether I got the album first and then saw them [Howard with Carl Martin and Ted Bogan] play, or the other way around. But when I met them, I was down in Beckley, West Virginia at the John Henry Folk Festival. I just heard this sound coming across the way and I had to find out who it was. It was Howard, Bogan and Carl Martin. It was such a great, beautiful sound, with their voices all together. And I started hanging around with them. As a young black musician taking a different musical path [than some of my contemporaries] it was important to run into older players who had been on that path fifty years before me.” Read more »
James “Sparky” Rucker: “I’ve known Howard for over thirty years… and over that time we’ve performed in festivals together all over. I believe the first time I met him was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1973 or 1974… it was a rare situation for me to find another African-American musician at a folk festival; usually they just booked one and figured they had it covered. At the time Howard was up there playing with Bogan and Martin and I said to myself, ‘I gotta meet those guys… Where do I sign up?’ At these festivals they’d always put up all the musicians in one hotel and it was one continuous party and jam all night long. Howard and Ted [Bogan] were always the last ones to bed. I thought to myself, ‘these guys must be younger than I thought!’ They’d be sniping at each other, ‘playing the dozens,’ you know, ribbing each other back and forth and seeing who could take the joke.
I was so impressed with what a multi-instrumentalist Howard was… at the time, Ted Bogan was playing guitar, Carl Martin mandolin and Howard the violin. Howard would turn around and pick up the guitar and he could play it better than Bogan, and then the mandolin and out do Martin! Over time, they came to find out that we had all grown up in the same area of east Tennessee, and they realized here’s a young up-and-coming musician playing in the same tradition, and that gave them an affinity for me.”
Elijah Wald: “I sort of met Howard through Barbara Ward, who sometimes seems to know half of Cambridge. She worked for a time at the Harvard Biological Laboratories, where my parents worked. Years later, I happened to be at a festival with U. Utah Phillips, and he went over to say hello to Howard and Barbara, and when she heard my name, she flipped, because she remembered me from when I was a little kid. I think she was kind of nonplussed when I suggested that me and my bass player, Robbie Phillips, might be good accompanists for Howard in the Boston area, but we came over when he was in town — he had not moved here yet — and it sounded great, and we became his main band for the next couple of years, traveling with him to the Chicago Blues Festival and Jazzfest in New Orleans, as well as playing lots of gigs around New England. Howard also painted a gorgeous picture of me and my playing partners for the cover of my album, ‘Street Corner Cowboys.’
I had played blues, country, and swing music before meeting Howard, but never with a musician of his range, verve, importance and experience. First off, I was just awed to be in the same room with him — I had owned the Martin, Bogan and Armstrong albums, and some of his older recordings for years. In the most basic terms, he taught me so many songs, and also gave very specific instructions in what he wanted played on guitar. For example, he taught me how to make an augmented chord, because he wanted it in the bridge to ‘Dinah.’ I guess that, even though I knew his music, I had thought of him as a more countrified player, and it was humbling to realize the breadth and depth of his musical knowledge.” Read more »
Read more remembrances of Howard on the POV Blog, listen to our radio stream of Howard playing some of his favorite songs or watch Sweet Old Song in its entirety through the May 2, 2009 on the POV website.