Howard Armstrong, country-music pioneer who played 20 instruments and spoke 7 languages

Michael Eli Dokosi Apr 8, 2020 at 04:00pm

April 08, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

April 08, 2020 at 04:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Howard Louie Bluie Armstrong via alchetron.com

Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong was one of many black string band musicians and country-music forebears, who played for both black and white audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. Aside singing, he also played the fiddle, mandolin and guitar.

The American country-blues musician born on March 4, 1909 was also a notable visual artist and raconteur (story teller). As a string band fiddler, Armstrong took his act across the country mastering genres from bluegrass to jazz.

A gifted man, he taught himself to play the fiddle at the age of nine and over his lifetime took up 20 instruments including mandolin, viola and banjo. He was also a composer and instrumentalist.

The Tennessee native was born William Howard Taft Armstrong to Daisy and Thomas Armstrong. His father, although a musician, artist and preacher also worked as a furnace man at the LaFollette Iron and Coal Company in eastern Tennessee to support his wife and nine children.

Young Armstrong benefited from his father’s tutelage as he taught his children to play a variety of musical instruments. Louie Bluie took to playing the mandolin, fiddle and guitar as a child. Another gift he inherited was his father’s ability to speak Italian, German, Polish and Spanish learned from the European immigrants working at the blast furnace.

As a teenager, Armstrong played blues, country, hokum and ragtime with his brothers in local bands, and in 1929 recorded with bluesman Sleepy John Estes and string band leader Yank Rachell. With Ted Bogan and Carl Martin he formed the Martin, Bogan & Armstrong Trio and in 1933 they migrated north to Chicago, performing at the World’s Fair, working as street musicians and recording music.

Armstrong, a World War II veteran, took a job as an assembly-line spot welder for the Chrysler Corporation in Detroit to support his family. The following year after retiring from Chrysler in 1971, and with interest in older forms of African American music on the rise, Armstrong reunited with his old friends Bogan and Martin, recording several albums and touring as the “last of the black string bands.”

When Martin passed in 1979, Bogan and Armstrong continued as a duo until Bogan’s death in 1990. Among the many awards and recognitions Armstrong received during his long and colorful life were a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1990) and a Michigan Heritage Award from the Michigan State University Museum (1989).

Armstrong, fluent in seven languages was also the subject of two PBS documentary films, Terry Zwigoff’s “Louie Bluie” in 1985 and Leah Mahan’s “Sweet Old Song” in 2002, which chronicled parts of his life and work.

Armstrong’s recordings released by Vocalion Records, included “Vine Street Drag” and “Knox County Stomp.”

He was married to Barbara Ward Armstrong, a soft-sculpture and fabric artist. Armstrong kept his age secret from his wife, having told her he was 55 when they met in Boston. Until his death, she told the Boston Globe, she did not know he was 30 years older than she was.

Armstrong passed away on June 30, 2003 aged 94 from complications from a heart attack.

Most viewed

Conversations

Must Read