Acclaimed musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong is renowned for a lifetime of jazz, blues, folk and country music. In POV’s first season, he was the subject of Terry Zwigoff’s “Louie Bluie,” and he is the first person to reappear in the series. 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.” But when Armstrong met Barbara Ward, a sculptor 30 years his junior, a new chapter of his life and art unfolded.
Sweet Old Song, a film by Leah Mahan, is the story of Armstrong and Ward’s courtship and marriage — a unique partnership that has inspired an outpouring of art and music. This creative work draws on nearly a century of African American experience, beginning with Armstrong’s vivid stories and paintings of his childhood in a segregated town in Tennessee.
When the vibrant and dashing Armstrong met Ward in 1983, he was 73, though Ward thought he was about 50. Armstrong confesses he thought Ward was 25 — she was 43. From this comic misunderstanding, which turns generational expectations on their heads, the two went on to develop a loving and creative relationship that plays like one of the “sweet old songs” that pour effortlessly from Armstrong.
Armstrong and Ward’s bond inspires them to explore their artistic and cultural roots. A tireless artist and collaborator, Ward encourages Armstrong to document their memories in paintings and illustrations for a children’s book. For Armstrong, these recollections reach back to a pre-World War II era of black string bands when, along with his younger brothers, he performed on the street and at white society dances. As Armstrong works to convey their personal histories on paper, his collaboration with Ward often takes a humorous turn, with a grouchy but playful Armstrong responding to Ward with mock exasperation.
Armstrong’s recollections take on added poignancy and urgency when the last of his siblings dies. Shortly after, he is invited to his hometown of LaFollette, Tennessee, which declares a Howard Armstrong Day in his honor. Armstrong’s visit is bittersweet, as he reminisces with old neighbors, recalls the train accident that killed one of his brothers, and is honored at the local high school, which was closed to black students when he was a child.
Ward, meanwhile, joins Armstrong’s band as percussionist and manager, helping Armstrong tour and perform long past the age when most musicians retire. Despite Armstrong’s bravado on stage, Ward reluctantly admits that as age slows her partner, she devotes herself more and more to looking after him and his artistic legacy.
Ward is both bemused and richly rewarded as she accompanies Armstrong on his journey through the past. “The film is fundamentally about collaboration,” says producer/director Mahan. “Both Barbara and Howard are charismatic, creative people, each a recognized artist. If Barbara has had to put more of her own work aside as Howard ages, she sees it, I think, as another creative endeavor.”