Howard Armstrong was born in 1909, and his life reflects many of the struggles and opportunities of 20th century America. His great grandfather was a slave owner, and his grandparents were slaves. He grew up in LaFollette, Tennessee, a segregated town where his father, a talented craftsman, musician and preacher, worked as a factory worker and waiter to feed his children. Despite extreme poverty, Howard found outlets for his irrepressible creativity.
Howard’s father taught his children to play a variety of stringed instruments, several of which he made. As a young teenager Howard joined a band led by Knoxville fiddler Blind Roland Martin and organized his younger brothers into a band. Howard also picked up his father’s passion for drawing and later studied art at Tennessee State Normal School in Nashville. Throughout his life he would use his love of sketching and painting to document his life experiences, and sometimes made a living as a sign painter.
In his late teens Howard worked on the L & N Railroad as a waterboy before joining up with Carl Martin, Blind Roland’s stepbrother, who became a lifelong musical partner. In 1930 they made their first recording in Knoxville along with Howard’s brother, Roland Armstrong. For several years Carl and Howard toured the South and Appalachia, playing wherever people would offer some change when they passed the hat – from coal mines to medicine shows and white society dances. They would play whatever the crowd wanted to hear: swing, blues, country, folk, spiritual and foreign songs.
In their travels they met guitarist Ted Bogan and in 1933 the trio joined the Great Migration north, arriving in Chicago in time to perform at the World’s Fair. They worked as street musicians and made recordings with well-known artists like Bumble Bee Slim and Big Bill Broonzy and performed with greats like Memphis Minnie.
During World War II, Howard worked in Hawaii for the civil service and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war he found it hard to support his family as a musician. String band music had faded from popularity, and he was forced to support his family by working on the assembly line in Detroit’s auto industry. Howard retired from Chrysler in 1971, and a revival of interest in oldtime African American music brought Martin, Bogan and Armstrong together again.
The band made several records and performed together until Martin’s death in 1979. For his contributions to American music, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Howard as a national treasure in 1990. In 1995 he recorded his first solo album, and continues to perform with a younger generation of musicians.
Note: We are sad to report that Howard Armstrong passed away on July 30, 2003 in Boston. He was 94.