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May 7 - 14, 1999

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Strings still attached

Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong's legacy is his versatility

by David Ritchie

Howard Armstrong Howard Armstrong is a living connection to a past that is all but forgotten. The 90-year-old entertainer is the last link to the music of the early-20th-century's traditional black string bands, a genre that defies classification. Featuring some combination of stringed instruments (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, etc.), musicians like Armstrong were able to turn on a dime and play whatever the crowd wanted, whether it was blues, country, Tin Pan Alley standards, ragtime, or hokum.

Today, Armstrong is still at it, the only living mandolin and fiddle player who recorded in the '20s- and '30s-era blues idiom. And he makes a rare appearance with his band at the Center for the Arts in Natick this Saturday.

Armstrong was born on March 4, 1909, one of nine children, in Dayton, Tennessee. The way he tells it, music was a part of life from the beginning. "My dad had a family group. My mother sang, my older sister played guitar, Dad played mandolin. . . . After my dad got what they call religion, he gave me his taterbug mandolin." The elder Armstrong played the bowl-back Italian-style "taterbug" mandolin until he took up preaching and became convinced that it was the devil's instrument.

Howard stuck to the mandolin for most of his youth until he saw a blind musician playing the violin for tip money. He knew immediately that he had to have one, and he made his first violin from a cigar box, though his father soon surprised him with a full-size violin he'd won at a raffle. It took the young man quite a while to get home that day because he couldn't leave the new instrument alone. "We lived about a mile from there. Didn't take me long to catch on. I'd walk a few feet along the railroad, then pull it out and saw on it."

Before long, Armstrong had become skilled on practically every instrument that had strings; and he organized a family group himself, teaching his younger siblings how to play. "We lived 14 miles from Cumberland Gap. That was where Grace Moore was from. She was a beautiful singer. When my dad quit working at the blast furnace, he worked as a table waiter. Moore happened to be one of the guests comin' around. He told her he had some boys that played music. She come around, she liked what she saw."

Moore was one of America's best-known operatic stars (called the Tennessee Nightingale), and she encouraged Armstrong's father to take his sons north. "He never did take us. We went ourselves. . . . She gave us a lot of encouragement."

Armstrong recorded with bluesman Sleepy John Estes and string band leader Yank Rachell in 1929. He soon teamed up with Ted Bogan and Carl Martin (whom he'd played with in Tennessee), and the trio of Martin, Bogan & Armstrong were born. They moved to Chicago in time to play the 1933 World's Fair; and Armstrong eventually played with everybody on the scene, including Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. But the Depression made playing for tips increasingly difficult, so his versatility and the repertoire he'd learned were essential. Because he grew up in a multi-ethnic community, Armstrong developed another skill that helped him through the hard times: he could converse in several languages, and his bands were able to enter Chicago's white neighborhoods, entertaining Italian, Polish, and German immigrants in their native tongue (and for slightly better tips).

Armstrong continued recording sporadically for a few different record companies in subsequent years. "Several talent scouts would come through -- give you a few pennies in your pocket and rip you off, but sometimes they'd give you a break."

Some of those early sessions have recently been added as bonus tracks to the Arhoolie reissue of the soundtrack to Louie Bluie, Terry Zwigoff's 1985 documentary about Armstrong. Bogan and Rachell were both featured in the movie, and the cover art for the LP and CD was supplied by R. Crumb (who, in 1994, would become the subject of Zwigoff's second documentary, Crumb). Though the soundtrack is wonderful and has shown up on several critics' "best of" lists, Armstrong was less than pleased with the way he was portrayed in the documentary.

"It seems like [Zwigoff] wanted to make me sound like something I wasn't, in a negative way -- like Uncle Remus or Hambone or something. If you tell the truth about something, that's all right. But no, I'm not proud of it. He portrayed me as something else -- a street guy playing the field with no decent characteristics. . . . He seemed to sneak in a lot of stereotypes people have about black people."

Armstrong's life defies stereotyping. Fluent in seven languages and skilled at 22 different instruments, he's also an accomplished painter, sculptor, composer, and poet. His mandolin and violin styles revolve around the use of double-stops (two notes played together), which bring out the melody and rhythm of the piece while also suggesting the harmony (double-stops are used in bluegrass, the genre most closely associated with the mandolin, but not to the extent Armstrong uses them).

In the early part of this century, the mandolin was used quite extensively in other genres, including the blues. Old-time string band music was quite popular in the black and white communities, and the fiddle was also quite common. However, the recording industry moved toward the hard Delta blues; and younger generations abandoned both violin and fiddle in favor of the guitar as the solo instrument.

As a result, Armstrong would always scrape by, taking other jobs (including a stint in 1941 as a builder on Pearl Harbor, which he obviously survived). And he waited long enough to see a resurgence of interest in his music during the early '70s folk revival.

Today, Armstrong is a celebrated artist and recipient in 1990 of the NEA's National Heritage Award. He received a Living Legend Award from the House of Blues, and he's up for a Life Achievement award at the Iowa Blues Festival, where he'll be playing on July Fourth weekend. But you can catch the Boston resident locally, as Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong and his band (guitar, bass, and percussion) take the stage this weekend.

Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong appears at 8 p.m. on May 8 at the Center for the Arts in Natick. Tickets are $12. Call 647-0179.

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