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Howard Armstrong

 

Howard Armstrong

( died 30.07.2003 at age 96 !!!)

 

Mr. Armstrong, not to be confused with the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, was often asked how he got the nickname, ''Louie Bluie.''

A great raconteur, he would tell people, according to a 1999 Globe interview, that it originated at a party in West Virginia, ''when I was 21 or 22.''My band, the Four Keys, was playing and, this girl, who was seditty - you know, snobby, upper-crusty - she'd had too much to drink. Well, I'm sure it wasn't beer, it wasn't whiskey - I'm sure it was champagne - and she sort of floated over and blurted out to me, like spit it out: `I know you're Armstrong, but not Louis Armstrong. You're just plain old Louie Bluie.''


Sweet Old Song A Film about Howard Armstrong, 2002

Louie Bluie THE Film about Howard Armstrong by Terry Zwigoff,1985

Howard Link Howard Armstrong






From the Magazin : Blues Access No. 35 Fall 1998

A Conversation with the Erstwhile Minstrel Singer Howard Armstrong

by David Feld


Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong walked onto the stage ar Yoshi´s Nite-Sort in Oakland this spring. Eighty - nine years old, rail-thin, he looked elegant in black velvet cap and scarf. Sitting down with his mandolin, he noticed he was alone on stage and asked, "You mean I got to play all by myself?" Then he sang a heart - breackingly lovely version of "Danny Boy". He traded the mandolin for acoustic guitar and played a rousing "Good Morning Judge."

Armstrong was joined by local whiz-kid Alvin Youngblood Hart. With Hart on guitar, the older man pulled out his fiddle and told Hart, "Let me know when you´re ready, ´cause I´m ready to leave the station. Think you can keep up? ´Cause you sure can´t catch up once I get going." Then he proved it by blazing through Gershwin´s "Lady be good". He plucked the strings; he bowed with long strokes; he sang in a warm and whispery voice. Needless to say , the crowed roared.

Howard Armstrong has been wowing audiences thusly for most of this century. Born in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1909, he moved with his parents and eight siblings to nearby LaFollette when he was five. Like many of the local black men, Howard´s father was a blast furnace worker.He was also a musician.

As Armstrong put it in a recent interview, "My dad had what we used to call an old tater-bug mandolin. It´s got ribbed stripes just like a potato bug, you know. It´s a lute-shaped instrument. After he joined the church,got religion, had his soul saved or whatever he had saved , then he gave it to me." Howard was around 12 at the time. He and his four brothers started up a string band that occasionally played in church.

Armstrong also learned to play the guitar at home. But it was another instrument that really captured his imagination. "Itinerant musicians would come and play music on payday. And then they´d pass the hat. That´s how I heard the first fiddle player. The first black fiddle player, I should say. I heard several white guys playing fiddle from up in the country and around the sticks. It didn´t move me because I couldn´t relate to what they were playing , that 'fiddle-dee-dee don´t do it' and all that, you know. But when I heard this black fiddle player - it was a blind man. He wore a derby cocked to one side. He was the first guy that used the full bow. He played long bow; he could bow, you know."

The youngster asked his father for a violin, but the Armstrongs were too poor to afford one. So Howard´s father built a fiddle out of a wooden box and strung it with mandolin strings. He made a bow out of a window-shade stick. For the bow-hair, " I ran a nag a half a day to get up close enough to get some hair of her tail." Once the fiddle was complete, " I was as happy as a cat in a fish market. I start sawing on it and it was the sweetest music to my little old funny ears, you know. It just came natural."

Natural. While still a student at the LaFollette Colored High School, Armstrong started playing with older musicians around town. In the summers , he went to Knoxville and joined up with his friend Carl and Roland Martin. Each summer the boys traveled trough Tennessee and West Virginia, playing on street corners and for dances. Performing on violin, string bass, guitar and mandolin, the group had to know a huge variety of tunes - from square dances to blues to the hit parade. Armstrong began his lifelong accumulation of songs in all styles,moods and languages.

Despite Armstrong´s ecumenical attitude toward music, he couldn´t escape the reality of race in his area. " The blacks and the whites didn´t mingle when it came to social things. One day I was playing with two white guys and I was the youngest one in the group. It was hot in the summer. On our break, I was listening to these two white guys shooting the breeze and here come two young white ladies.

" I was the only black man there. The ladies said, ' He´s so hot. I´m going to fan him.´ They started fanning him with newspaper or something. I was sitting there looking like a knot on a log. One of them says, ´ I´m going to fan this one ` . It didn´t dawn on me right quick till I felt that breeze hit me in the face. And here came a juice-headed dude in there, reeling and rocking . He looked and saw me. He said, `By god, I can´t stand it, I just can´t stand it. A white woman fanning a black you-know-what.` It took about three or four guys to get that guy out of there. He was a stone racist to his heart. "

In 1930, the Martins and Armstrongs entered a recording studio in Knoxville for Vocalion. The talent scout who secured their services renamed them the Tennesse Chocolate Drops. Soon thereafter , Roland Martin left the group, to be replaced by guitarist Ted Bogan. Martin, Bogan & Armstrong ( with an occasional string bass player ) performed throughout coal country, one of many integrated string bands of the period, distinguished primarily by the skill and repertoire of fiddler Armstrong

The band adjusted its set list to the race and class of its audience. " We played the popular songs for most of the white people, the upper crust, the elite. Just the common run-of-the-mill people, we played blues and things like that, you see. We didn´t dare play blues at any of the white functions. I know one time we were playing some blues for some white people there in Chicage at a party. Everything had been going real smoothly. Some guy came over there chewing on one of those little crooked cigars.

"He said, ´What kind of jungle chant is that you dudes are playing in here ?` `Oh we´re playing some blues.` He took a bite off his cigar and said.`My God, you better play some reds or some greens or something, because we don´t want to hear that jungle stuff.` The only kind of blues we could play for white audiences guess what they were ? 'St.Louis Blues', ' Memphis Blues' and a blues that was not a blues at all that came from England called 'Limehouse Blues' But you didn´t go around white people playing what we call low-down dirty blues. The elite among the blacks , they were just like the whites. We had to play the same kind of music. But where they had chitlin struts, fish fries and all that, they didn´t care what you played."

The group moved to Chicago in the mid-'30s and continued its success in an urban setting. Armstring´s ear, so well attuned to sounds and voices, absorbed a great deal from the city´s many immigrants. Soon, he was singing to audiences in their native languages -German,Italian,Spanish, Swedish, even a version of Mandarin. On at least one occasion,his linguistic facility may have saved his life. "All the guys in Chicago , all the young black musicians at that time that i knew, they always wanted to follow me,because we´d go out where a lot of black musicians were afraid to go. You know, the time that Joe Louis beat this great big Italian guy, Primo Carnera, well, I don´tknow why people take these ugly attitudes. If a black guy was caught over in an Italian neighbourhood, he better start running or flying, because they would catch him and beat him to death.

"One time, I was with three guys. We didn´t have a gig. I saw written on the window of a basement 'La Casita', which means 'the little house'. I said 'let´s go in here'. ' No man, I ain´t going in no Italian place'. And I said ' That´s money to spend' . 'Yeah, by god, if you live to spent it ` . I said ' Well, stay here,I´m going.' They didn´t want to be hicken, so they followed me. We go down some steps, and it was hazy in there from this little old croocked cigar that they smoked. Smoke was everywhere, you know, but it was clear enough for me to see this great big bare-chested Sicilian on one side, hair all over his chest, and one on that side, eating these little stogies up. He got up and I started backing up , backed up on the guitar player,he backed upon the bass fiddle player, he blocked the door.

"There I was.And that guy looking down and he was chewing on one of these little old ugly cigars. 'You think that Joe Louis is a nice-a fighter.He beat this Italian fighter.' I said, ' I don´t know anything about Joe louis.' And something stuck this tale in my ear, ' Why don´t you talk Italian to him,fool?' And I whipped my Tennessee Italian on him and told him I played Italian Music. And you know what he said? 'Suona la musica presto.' ('All right , get at it, play it, right away.') I said 'Boys we are saved.' We were treated like guests of honor till the guys got full of that dago red, that Italian brew take the paint off a brand-new car. 'Ah, you boys are singing a nice Italian.' We played at that place for over a year."

After a few years in Chicago, Armstrong returned to Tennessee, settling in Sparta until hiring on with the Navy as a civilian employee. ( He was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed.) Following the war, he returned briefly to Chicago."That´s were my wife was living. I might as well not have gone.She had a guy that had moved on in. He gritted his teeth and rolled his face at me. He was bigger than me and badder than me. So I dusted my broom. I wasn´t going to get killed."

Armstrong´s broom landed in Detroit, where he lived for many years.However, by the post-war period, the era of the string bands had passed.Armstrong tried to make a living at his other great passion -- painting. He has painted all his life, from commercial signs and folk tableaux to religious settings and pornography. But there wasn´t enough work for him to live on, so he joined thousands of other black and white workers on the assembly line at Chrysler.

Armstrong retired from Chrysler in 1971 at age 62.And that´s when his career began again. Reuniting with Martin and Bogan, he recorded two albums for Flying Fish and toured extensively, including a State Department-sponsored jaunt through South America. In 1990, he was given a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Education Association and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Blues Society in 1995. He was the subject of Terry (Crumb) Zwigoff´s first film, Louie Bluie. Armstrong´s long-time nickname comes from an incident in which a drunk young woman came up to him after a gig and said, " I know you´re not Louie Armstrong, you must be Louie Bluie."

Several years ago, Armstrong returned to the recording studio. Louie Bluie, released in 1995 on the Blues Suit Label, runs the gamut of American popular music from novelty tunes to down-home blues. Many of Armstrong´s classic numbers are here --- "Lady be good", "Sittin' on Top of the world", "Dinah". He plays 12-bar blues on the mandolin on the self-titled "Louie Bluie Blues" and sings faux-Chinese on "Chinatown" . No matter what source or style of music. Armstrong´s vocals are smooth and friendly, like whispered drops of honey from a favorite uncle.

On the cusp of his tenth decade, Armstrong is as sharp and sprightly as ever. A renowned raconteur, he can spin stories for hour after hour. He still paints and is currently illustrating a children´s book. ( He did the artwork for the Louie Bluie CD.) And he plays like a man who has seen it all and loved every minute of it.. When asked the secret of his longevity , he replied, "Just take life as it comes. You can worry yourself to death in one day of you want to. In other words, life to some people is like a trap. If you´ve got your head in a lion´s mouth, you don´t snatch it out. If he don´t start chomping down on it soon as you stick it in, you ease it out, don´t you see. If you snatch it out , make him mad, he´s going to bite it off."

Howard Armstrong has been easing it out since the early days of the Twentieth Century. He and his music are timeless.