Sweet Old Song

PBS Premiere: July 30, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmaker

Leah Mahan: Thank you so much to everyone who submitted questions and comments about Sweet Old Song. I learned a lot about my own work from your reactions to it. The POV staff selected several questions for me to respond to publicly (below).

Viewer Question: I found the film about Mr. Armstrong was very interesting and I enjoyed it. My question to you is how can you make an accurate account of his life while leaving out so much of his life? If I recall Barbara saying that he was 73 years old when she met him. There was a lot of that 73 years left out of the film, and I would like to know why. Was this film just Barbara's point of view? Why was there no mention of his children with which some were also blessed with his musical talents? It would be nice to see the whole point of view.

Mahan: There are so many important aspects of Howard and Barbara's lives that are not included in "Sweet Old Song." They both have rich histories as artists and, on a personal level, this is the third marriage for both of them. But I did not set out to create a historical biography. Instead, I chose to focus on their relationship and their lives in the present. That is the story I felt compelled to tell. I had to make hard choices about how to focus an hour-long documentary that would convey what I found fascinating about them. The choices I made reflect my point of view, not theirs.

When the past enters the story it is through the lens of something that is happening in the present -- their discussion about their love letters, Howard's photographs and paintings of his early life, the children's book about Barbara's childhood and the trip to Tennessee.

It is also a reality of Howard's life at this point that his memory focuses more and more on his early life as a boy in Tennessee. When his only surviving brother died it was a moment that brought those memories back even more intensely.

Howard's sons live in Michigan and I did not have the opportunity to film a family visit during the time when I was producing the documentary. I did not initiate any of the events that occurred -- I simply followed what was happening in their lives. If something had come up involving his children while I was filming, the story might have taken a different turn. I did not determine ahead of time what would be included in the documentary. I allowed events to unfold and the story evolved as time passed.

Some of the choices I made were also determined by the limited budget and the fact that I shot the majority of the footage myself. But that's another story.

Viewer Question: This was an absolutely moving film. What inspired you to interview this couple? In other words what was the most important thing that you felt that made this couple unique?

Mahan: I didn't realize it at the time, but I think that part of what inspired me about Howard and Barbara has a lot to do with things I was going through in my own life. I was worried about two older relatives of mine who were having serious health problems, and I was thinking about getting married. I thought Howard and Barbara's outlook on life and their way of relating to each other was so healthy, fun and refreshing. I wanted to know more about them and I wanted to share their story with others.

I think one of the unique things about their relationship that I admired is the way they view age. They have very different perspectives and they manage to laugh at their differences. It seems to me that the respect and warmth that Barbara feels for older people and Howard's desire to stay eternally young are part of the magic between them. She is fascinated by his history and is also a realist, and tends to talk frankly about his age. He would prefer to ignore his age and wishes everyone else around him would do so, too. Neither of them lets age limit their thinking or the relationships they have.

Viewer Question: During the last 10 minutes of the film... Armstrong performed a song solo with a small guitar and sang lyrics that contained "At Daddy's (or Pappa's) House"... it repeated a few times. Can you tell me what the name of this song is? It is great! I would love to track it down and buy it!

Mahan: In concert, Howard often sings a few gospel songs he learned as a boy. Unfortunately, few of these have been recorded on CD. The song that Howard sings at his parents' grave is one of these songs, and it is called "Come and Go With Me (To My Father's House)." If you go to www.allmusic.com and search for the title you will find recordings by other artists.

This is a traditional song, and I know you can find the sheet music in a book titled "Slave Songs of the U.S." This book was originally published in 1867, but is available from Dover Publications (copyright 1995). If you go to www.pdinfo.com (The Public Domain Information Project) you can find background on the book. This site explains that the book was the first systematic effort to collect the songs sung by African Americans during slavery.