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Howard Armstrong: 1909-2003
Howard Armstrong
'"Louie Bluie"'
fiddle, mandolin, composer

Born: March 4, 1909 in Dayton, TN
Died: July 30, 2003 in Boston, MA

African-American string-band performer

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2003 Todd S. Jenkins

Todd S. Jenkins

Howard Armstrong, a.k.a. "Louie Bluie", a fiddler, mandolinist and composer who kept the traditions of African-American string-band music alive for decades, died in Boston on July 30, 2003, at the age of 94.

William Howard Taft Armstrong was born in Dayton, Tennessee on March 4, 1909. His father built him his first fiddle, which he taught himself to play at the age of nine. His skills eventually grew to encompass over twenty instruments, including most of the strings. His father renounced music when he became a minister, but Armstrong was not swayed from his calling.

He attended the Tennessee State Normal School in Nashville, where he studied music formally while playing with blind fiddler Roland Martin. The two later formed a long-lived band with Martin's brother Carl on guitar, Armstrong's brother Roland on bass, and mandolinist Ted Bogan. The group toured America performing the full range of African-American music, from Negro work songs and spirituals through the Mills Brothers' repertoire. The group included humorous interpretations of Hawaiian, German and Gershwin tunes in their shows as well. Armstrong's band recorded a few sides for Vocalion Records in the 1930s and were billed as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, the Four Aces, and finally as Martin, Bogan and Armstrong. In the 1930s a drunken fan bestowed the enduring nickname "Louie Bluie" upon the fiddler. The band backed blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy and made a notable appearance at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.

By the mid-40s Armstrong's music had become passť. He left the business and spent close to three decades assembling Chryslers. A revival of interest in African-American music came in 1971, during the "black power" movement, and Martin, Bogan and Armstrong reunited to perform again. The band toured all the Americas and recorded for labels like Rounder, Red Pajamas and Flying Fish. After Roland Martin's death, Armstrong and Bogan continued their lifelong musical relationship.

Armstrong was the subject of two documentary films: Terry Zwigoff's "Louie Bluie" (1985) and Leah Mahan's "Sweet Old Song" (2002). He received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. His 1995 solo album "Louie Bluie" (Blue Suit) earned him a W.C. Handy Award, and the following year he moved to Boston with his manager and second wife, fabric artist Barbara Ward Armstrong. He was a talented visual artist himself, having evolved from an apprentice sign painter in his youth into a respected muralist.

Armstrong received the Tennessee Governor's Award in the Arts early in 2003, just before he suffered the first of a series of heart attacks that ended his playing career. He died of complications from those repeated attacks. He is survived by his wife, three sons from a previous marriage, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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With 1 reader comment, posted June 29, 2004