Monthly Archives: July 2011

An American Songster:

 

Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong

March 4th, 1909 ~ July 30th, 2003

American Songster

.… from 78 rpm to DVD ….

According to blues researcher and historian Paul Oliver, a songster was an entertainer… one who:

“Provided music for every kind of social occasion in the decades before phonographs and radio. They were receptive to a wide variety of songs and music; priding themselves on their range, versatility and capacity to pick up a tune, they played not only for the black communities, but for whites too, when the opportunities arose, Whatever else the songster had to provide in the way of entertainment, he was always expected to sing and play for dances. This over-riding function bound many forms of black secular song together, Social songs, comic songs, the blues and ballads, minstrel tunes and popular ditties all had this in common and whether it set the time for a spirited lindy-hopping or for low-down, slow dragging across a puncheon floor, the music of black secular song could almost always be made to serve this purpose.”

Songsters & Saints/bb

Paul Oliver’s exceptional 1984 book:
Songsters & Saints —
Vocal Traditions on Race Records.
Cambridge University Press
 

I would add, that songsters were to be found in both the white and black prewar music traditions; be it Mance Lipscomb or Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers, Memphis Minnie or the Memphis Jug Band… what they all had in common was a profound colorblindness when it came to choosing the songs they would perform, showing little regard for the racial origins or the genre of the tune (recording was often another matter, where performers were expected to hew more closely to their hillbilly or blues roots).

VERNACULAR::SHELLAC is, in large part, the home of the songster, a delightful mish-mash of prewar blues, old-time, hillbilly, string band, jug band, jazz, novelty songs and pop – from both black and white traditions. Though there are others on the short list… no one in the latter days of the 20th Century personified the songster more elegantly than Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong.

Foreword:

I‘m afraid this blog entry may tax the attention span of the most robust reader… but once I began assembling data it became clear that to tell a coherent biography and to enumerate a discography would take more than a page or two.  I pledge to be less wordy in future posts.  Also, unfortunately, I suspect there may be factual errors in this biography and discography of Howard Armstrong. The source material available, including multiple interviews with Armstrong and those who knew and performed with him, magazine articles, liner notes, documentaries, personal conversations, and innumerable other sources, are rife with contradictions, errors and confabulations.

In most, if not all cases, I have been able to sort through the chaff and come up with what I believe to be the most accurate information and conclusions, and have, I believe, documented some previously little known information.

However, one major area of dispute remains to be definitively resolved… and, oddly, in all my research I’ve not seen one case of this being mentioned or seen as an issue of contention. The question is: Besides Howard Armstrong and Carl Martin, who was the third musician who recorded with the Tennessee Chocolate Drops in 1930 at the St. James Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee? Was it Roland Martin or Roland Armstrong? …and what instruments were played by which musicians? Both musicians have been cited by authoritative sources as the third member of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.

 

To my knowledge there is no definitive answer to this question.  Given what is known, I have my best guess as to which of the two Rolands to credit and will give my reasons (as well as an airing of some of the conflicting data), in the discography.  I will, of course, eagerly welcome any documented information concerning this question… as well as any other corrections of factual errors that may have inadvertently crept through…

 

A CULTURE OF CREATIVITY; THE EARLY YEARS:

William Howard Taft Armstrong was born on the 4th day of March, 1909 (the inauguration day of 27th President of the USA, William Howard Taft) in Dayton, Tennessee — the town which would gain a degree of notoriety sixteen years later as the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey trial. When Howard was three years old his family moved 90 miles northeast to the Smoky Mountains community of LaFollette, TN.

LaFollette, was something of a boom town… a company town, recently developed by the LaFollette brothers, it provided workers for their blast furnace and the population of nearly 300 in 1900 had grown to over 3000 by 1920.

At its peak, the LaFollette blast furnace was one of the largest in the Southern United States and the LaFollettes employed some 1500 people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Ironically their blast furnace failed at the height of the roaring twenties but the city of LaFollette actually continued to grow and prosper during the Great Depression as the region’s coal mines were developed and many small factories and businesses took advantage of the collapse of the LaFollette brother’s empire.

young Howard, self-portrait, painting

Howard takes some quiet time under his house to work on a painting.

A constant throughout his life, Armstrong was a prolific and very talented graphic artist.

                                                                      Original art by Howard Armstrong

 

The Armstrong’s were a musical — and industrious — family… Howard’s father, Tom, was a blast furnace laborer, hotel cafe waiter and part-time, eventually full time, preacher. Howard’s father was one of fifteen siblings, all of whom played one or more stringed instruments. Tom played both the mandolin and banjo. During Howard’s earliest years, Tom Armstrong led a little family musical combo that would play around the community, but he became less involved in the families musical pursuits after the blast furnace folded and he took a job as a waiter at the Grand Morgan Hotel in Jellico, TN; some 30 miles to the north, on the Tennessee – Kentucky border. Tom’s involvement in music diminished further as he began spending more time with his ministerial work. He eventually passed both his mandolin and banjo on to Howard.

Howard eagerly picked up his father’s idle mandolin and, along with a few instructions, he quickly learned his chords and harmonies. Howard’s mother sang and his older sisters, Ella, Clara and Robbie sang and played in a little family combo that would serenade LaFollette’s families of means for cash tips and bartered foodstuffs. During this period of his improving mandolin playing, Howard also became enamored of the fiddle playing of Knoxville’s blind fiddler Roland Martin. Martin, who would later become a playing partner of Howard’s, frequently made his way to LaFollette to entertain (for tips) the area coal miners on payday.

Supporting his son’s talents, Howard’s father carved a fiddle out of a wooden box, a curtain rod was requisitioned for a bow and the project was completed thanks to the donation of some tail hair from a nearby pony… producing a more-than-serviceable fiddle with, according to Howard, “a nice tone.”

 

Armstrong Brothers String Band

The Armstrong Brothers String Band,
aka the “Wandering Troubadours” circa 1925
From the left:
Lee Crocket (L.C.), Francis Lee (F.L.), Howard
and Roland.

By the time he was in his early teens Howard, (on fiddle and mandolin) organized his younger brothers into a family string band. Brother Roland played a homemade upright bass, L.C. played the guitar and six year old F.L. held down the ukulele/banjo-uke chair. The family band played mainly for upper-class blacks and for white folks (many of them immigrant) because, according to Howard; “that’s where the money was.” Consequently Armstrong’s repertoire, from an early age, consisted of a wide range of old time music, fiddle and square-dance tunes, blues, pop, gospel and a variety of ethnic tunes (e.g. he knew enough Polish, Italian , German and Chinese — and enough of several other languages — to pull out a tune or two on request).

The Armstrong Brothers String Band became known in the middle-Tennessee region, at least as far away as Knoxville, 40 miles to the south, where they were invited to broadcast over the local “dawn to dusk” radio station WORL. Beginning when he was around 12 years of age, it became Howard’s habit that as soon as school was out, he would hit the road, on his own, during the summertime months, playing with other musicians in the towns and cities around LaFollette. During this time heHoward circa 1928 frequently played with the Martin brothers (his fiddle mentor, Roland Martin and Roland’s multi-instrumental brother, Carl) in Knoxville.

                                                              Howard circa 1928

With Carl Martin on bowed bass, guitar or mandolin, Howard Armstrong on primarily fiddle and mandolin — as well as variable other family and friend musicians — the string band, then known as The Four Keys, became regulars… performing in public places and passing the hat around on Knoxville’s Vine Street, as well as other communities in the Cumberland area of Tennessee.

FIRST RECORDINGS; THE PREWAR YEARS:

Armstrong’s first recording experience was for the well-known Brunswick-Blake-Collender companies’ Vocalion label. A field-recording team from Vocalion was in Knoxville twice between August 1929 and April 1930; setting up a temporary recording studio at radio station KNOX in downtown Knoxville’s St. James Hotel, where they recorded something approaching 100 tracks by several dozen vernacular musicians and musical groups from the region.

Deep in the depression, it is estimated that Vocalion pressed roughly 500 copies of each recording… indeed, it’s no wonder most of these 78s are very rare today.

Field recording of American vernacular music is a story in itself; one I hope to address here at a later time. Briefly; as might be expected, over the first several years of recording race and hillbilly music, most recordings were done in major northern cities, primarily New York and Chicago, where bulky recording facilities were located. As recording technology improved and transportation became more reliable, it soon became possible to take the recording studio to the regional performers…. a process that was more fruitful and economical than taking individual performers out of their native environs and recording them individually in the north.

The first field recording was of Fiddlin’ John Carson, who recorded “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane”/”That Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster’s Goin’ To Crow” in Atlanta in June of 1923. Over the years much of the best vernacular music was recorded during trips to towns and cities such as St. Louis, MO, Charlotte, NC, Bristol, TN, Memphis, TN, Dallas, TX, Cincinnati, OH, Richmond, VA, Atlanta, GA… and many others… including the St. James Hotel sessions of 1929 and 1930 in Knoxville,TN.

(Fiddlin’ John Carson was immensely popular in the south and it’s no coincidence Howard Armstrong performed the fiddle tune, “Cacklin’ Hen,” throughout his career. “Cacklin’ Hen” is a direct descendent of Carson’s ”That Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster’s Goin’ To Crow” and was recorded by Howard’s Tennessee contemporaries Joe Evans and Arthur McClain [The Two Poor Boys] in 1931 as “Old Hen Cackle.”)

Knoxville's St. James Hotel/bbKnoxville's St. James Hotel postcard back/bbKnoxville's St. James Hotel/bb

Vintage postcard views of Knoxville’s
St. James Hotel,
site of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops
1930 recording session
(and the home of radio station KNOX).
 

 

In his Living Blues interviews, Howard recalls that:

“The record companies had advance agents that would come through; talent scouts. They’d pick up a lot of black kids that had a good voice and could sing the blues.”

Howard recounts more of the story in Terry Zwigoff’s 78Quarterly article:

“One day, the Brunswick Recording Company [parent company of the Vocalion label] had put a notice up in Knoxville [that said] “If you have any talent, such and such an agent is coming through, and I remember this woman, Leola Mannings was there, and her husband told me that we better be down to Jean’s Barber Shop. That’s where most musicians managed to be ’cause we gathered and they made us welcome there. They [Brunswick talent scouts] were going to be there to pick up some talent… And the talent scouts there heard about our group and had us record.”

It was during this session that a Vocalion record producer, looking for a memorable name that would spur sales, christened the Martin, Armstrong and Armstrong group, the “Tennessee Chocolate Drops.”

Sometime in 1930 or 1931, Howard was given the name “Louie Bluie,” a name he adopted for performing and recording, a stage name he carried the rest of his life. In a story he was very fond of telling; while performing at a house party in West Virginia, an inebriated, but high-toned young lady (daughter of an undertaker) approached the band, giving each of them nicknames… Carl Martin she dubbed “Duke Ellington,” Ted Bogan became “Ted Lewis,” and coming last to Howard she said, “I know you’re Armstrong, but not Louis Armstrong, you’re just plain old Louie Bluie.”

Between the April 3rd, 1930 recording session in Knoxville, and the March 23rd, 1934 recording session for the Bluebird Label in Chicago, IL, Howard, usually with both Ted Bogan and Carl Martin — and at times with others — played throughout the Southeastern US, honing their craft in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas… playing for a time with a medicine show (Dr. Leon D. Bondrya – The ‘Hindu’ Physician), as well as at house parties, picnics, dances, in clubs, barbershops. Eventually, by 1933, Howard was residing primarily in Bluebird 8593 -- State Street Rag, from popsike.comChicago, IL, playing the streets, clubs and rent parties, as well as rubbing shoulders with Chicago blues players such as Bumble Bee Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie; and playing in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

       

Bluebird 8593 Recorded Chicago, March 23rd, 1934

Howard’s wide-ranging repertoire was influenced by his early experiences growing up in small-town Tennessee, then touring throughout the southeastern states and eventually spending formative years in Chicago. In addition, he was among the first generation to be influenced by phonograph records and the radio.

A songster’s ability to cater to the desires of his fan base was a key factor in his popularity… Howard was able to perform in multiple genres and would play whatever it took for those listening to “put chips on his hips” (put money in his pockets).

He was as comfortable playing and singing pop songs as he was with old-time county, blues or jazz. But he didn’t stop there, he also performed novelty tunes, ethnic and gospel songs as well as rags. There was a great deal of cross-pollination in his music… folk songs became blues, pop became jazz and jazz became pop. He could easily move from an old-time fiddle tune like “Cacklin’ Hen” to pop-jazz such as “Lady be Good,” then back to “Railroad Blues” or a novelty song like “I Ain’t Gonna Throw This Away” or one of his patented rags, such as “State Street Rag” or “Knox County Stomp.”

All of his influences were filtered through the sensibility of the acoustic string band; fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, perhaps a jug or two, bones, ukulele, piano – maybe an accordion… and more. Howard was fond of saying that he was proficient on twenty-two instruments – he and his bandmates were adept at playing whatever was available and whatever the crowd wanted to hear.

In Chicago, Armstrong was able to use his multicultural talents to assist his string band in performing in Italian, German, Polish and other of Chicago’s ethnic enclaves. But despite their talents, paying venues continued to dry up as the Great Depression deepened throughout the mid 1930s, and in 1935, following his 1934 recording session with Ted Bogan for Bluebird, Howard returned to Tennessee to play a gig (that had initially been his brother’s) with Steve Roberts’ New York Rhythm Boys. Howard filled in as the bass player in the seven-piece band, began selling his services as a sign painter and artist, taught music on the side and settled into life in the small town of Sparta (some 500 miles south of Chicago and 110 miles to the west/southwest of his hometown, LaFollette). He eventually married a young woman named Celestine Crook and with her had a son, Tommy Lee… further tying him to life in Sparta.

Around 1940, as Howard describes it in the Living Blues #171 article, the white businessmen of Sparta thought so much of his abilities that they convinced him it would, financially, be a really good idea to expand his horizons and take a job in Hawaii. Taking their advice Howard signed on as a civil service employee and shipped out to a town he’d never heard of… Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

THE MIDDLE YEARS; HAWAII, DETROIT; MARTIN, BOGAN and ARMSTRONG:

Howard lived in Hawaii for the better part of two years, roughly 1940 to 1942, where he worked as a welder in the Navy yards, and also picked up sign painting jobs. He was a witness to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and took that as a sign that it was time to get back to the relative safety of the states. In later years, mentioning his time in Hawaii was a part of his stage patter during live shows and he always maintained “You’ll Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me” in his repertoire.

Moving back to the mainland, he returned briefly to Chicago – where his wife was living – only to find her in a relationship with another man… evidently, per Howard, a ruffian and a bruiser. Howard took this as evidence that the relationship was not salvageable and that the prudent thing to do was keep on moving. He settled in Detroit, where he worked for Chrysler on the assembly line, eventually retiring in 1971. Although there was little or no professional call during the fifties and sixties for a songster such as Armstrong, he never let proficiency on his instruments lapse; playing frequently for himself, friends and family. Throughout his middle years, as was true his entire life, he continued his obsession with art, and was able to supplement his Chrysler income with revenue from sign painting.

Following retirement, he reunited with Ted Bogan and Carl Martin, both of whom lived in Chicago and who were marginally Bogan, Martin and Armstrong in the 1970s active Chicago blues scene… Martin having recorded as a member of the Chicago String Band for Pete Welding’s Testament Records as recently as 1966 and both Martin and Bogan having recorded for Rounder Records in February, 1972 with Sam Chatmon and Walter Vinson as members of the New Mississippi Sheiks.

                  Bogan, Martin and Armstrong in the 1970s

Taking advantage of the growing interest in folk/old time music and acoustic blues, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong had a successful run as a mixed-vernacular old-time string band… recording several LPs, performing at festivals and clubs and acting as ambassadors for the music on a South American tour under the auspices of the US State Department.

Below, from “Clark,” a fan, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong on YouTube: recorded at an informal jam session with Jethro Burns, another one of Steve Goodman’s mentors, at the University of Chicago folk festival sometime in the late 70’s. Carl Martin is singing, Ted Bogan playing guitar and Howard Armstrong playing fiddle. Martin has put down his mandolin to allow room for Burns to play:

 
nice solo from Howard at end of clip…

 

 
 
Vocal by Bogan, mandolin by Martin, art and fiddle by Howard

 

LOUIE BLUIE …

IN THE MOVIES and BACK ON STAGE:

 

Two events in the spring of 1979 were to dramatically move Armstrong’s career in a new direction.

Carl Martin died in May of 1979, putting the future of Martin, Bogan and Armstrong in limbo… and, string band musician and 78 rpm record collector Terry Zwigoff became obsessed with the musicianship on his copy of Louie Bluie’s 1934 Bluebird recording.Terry Zwigoff  

Zwigoff, with the thought of writing an article about Armstrong for Tony Russell’s British Old Time Music magazine, met and interviewed Howard Armstrong.

 

             How Terry Zwigoff felt when he began filming Louie Bluie

 After an initial interview with Armstrong, Zwigoff quickly realized that it would take more than a magazine article to do justice to the Louie Bluie story. Against all odds, and with zero experience, Zwigoff jumped headfirst into making a movie featuring Howard, rather than the initially planned magazine article.

Spending over five years and his last cent, he produced a masterpiece.

San Francisco premier of Louie Bluie/bb

R. Crumb poster for San Francisco premier of

Louie Bluie

 

Much has been written about that movie, Louie Bluie, and the process of its making, so rather than recount the movie making process (or the 5-star movie) here, I would recommend taking a look at the recent and fascinating (Spring 2011) Zwigoff interview in Fretboard Journal.

http://www.fretboardjournal.com/features/online/terry-zwigoff-revisits-louie-bluie

The Fretboard Journal interview coincides with the Criterion Collection’s release of the 1985 movie, Louie Bluie… now, for the first time, on DVD. Even if you already own Louie Bluie on VHS, stop what you are doing right now and buy yourself a copy of the DVD! Beyond the terrific movie itself, the DVD’s great mono sound and high-definition image are terrific… sharp and vivid. But what you will really enjoy are the special-edition features, especially Zwigoff’s very fascinating hour of audio commentary and an additional thirty-plus minutes of unused footage.

If Howard’s renaissance began when he reconnected with Carl Martin and Ted Bogan in the early 1970s … the second half of Armstrong’s renaissance began with the 1985 release of the film, Louie Bluie.

From 1985, through the remainder of his life, Howard Armstrong was recognized and honored for his contribution to American vernacular music and performed regularly at various venues as well as teaching and performing at sites such as West Virginia’s Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkin’s College, and Port Townsend, Washington’s Centrum Country Blues and Fiddle Tunes workshops and festivals.

 

Howard Armstrong art:  Postcard promoting Centrum's Festival of American Fiddle Tunes/bb

Howard Armstrong art:
Pomoting Centrum’s Festival of
American Fiddle Tunes.
Subject: D.L Menard (the Cajun Hank Williams)
and The Louisiana Aces

 

It was as an attendee at Port Townsend’s Country Blues Workshops in 1994 and 2000 that I had the pleasure of spending a week each of those years watching and participating as Howard Armstrong taught, lectured, socialized, performed, told stories and chatted one-to-one with workshop participants such as myself.

Ironically, three years later, it was during the week of Port Townsend’s 2003 Blues fest that Howard died. His death was mourned and his life was celebrated by all, including many on staff that year who had performed with Howard in various settings.

 

THE FINAL DECADE…

BARBARA and HOWARD’S SWEET OLD SONG:

Howard began a twenty year relationship with Barbara Ward (Boston fabric sculptor/artist, dancer, musician, children’s book author), meeting her at a performance in 1983. Howard was 73. Ward suspected he was around 50, and he did not correct her misperception for several years. Armstrong later said that he thought Barbara was in her mid-20s… she was actually 43.

Howard and Barbara, sharing their loves…

music, art, and themselves

Howard and BarbaraHoward moved from Detroit to Boston to be with Barbara in 1996, they married in February, 2001. Barbara was the enduring love of his life, and played a large part in supporting both his art and music in his last decades. The story of their relationship is lovingly told in the 2002 documentary film, Sweet Old Song.

Sweet Old Song (2002) by Leah Mahan.

Sweet Old Song (2002) by Leah Mahan Sweet Old Song contrasts with the more earthy, ribald tone of Louie Bluie, and, filmed roughly 20 years later, Sweet Old Song covers some of the same territory as Louie Bluie, but from a different perspective. It tells the story of the same remarkable, artist/musician/world traveler/story teller/American treasure… although clearly the same spirit, this is an aging Louie Bluie in a changing America, as engagingly evidenced by the 2000 trip Howard and Barbara made to LaFollette.

 

Howard leading a 2000 workshop at Centrum's Country Blues week in Pt. Townsend, Washington

Howard leading a 2000 workshop at Centrum’s Country Blues week in Pt. Townsend, Washington during filming for Sweet Old Song

 

It’s clear that Barbara kept Howard vital, on track, and focused; a daunting, and at times thankless task (Howard accurately characterizes himself as being – at times – “an old grouch”). He was, of course, much more than just an old grouch… this film captures his many facets and is a fitting addendum to Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie.

Howard, with Barbara’s able support and encouragement, was able to remain healthy and active, continuing both his performing and his artwork well into 1993. Armstrong died Wednesday, July 30th, 2003, in Boston from complications related to a heart attack in March of 2003.

Despite his passing, the legacy of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong lives on. His music is readily available on vinyl and compact disc (good luck finding a Howard Armstrong 78!) – as well as digital downloads and he can be experienced in Louie Bluie and Sweet Old Song.

And, thankfully, there are rumors of a book-length biography in the works… as well as a book of his art and a children’s story, done in collaboration with Barbara Armstrong.

There is a yearly Louie Bluie Festival in Howard’s home town of LaFollette, TN  http://louiebluie.org/  and a play of his life – Between a Ballad and a Blues – has been written, produced and performed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymorrwfgr5g

http://www.myspace.com/betweenaballadandablues

http://www.hayti.org/between-a-ballad-and-the-blues/

 
 
 

HOWARD ARMSTRONG DISCOGRAPHY/VIDEOGRAPHY:

DISCOGRAPHY:

One of many interesting features of the no longer published 78 Quarterly magazine was their ongoing “A thru Z” feature, 78Q Presents The Rarest 78s. It’s always daunting to look up a record I was hoping to find one day, only to be told… “there are fewer than five known copies.” Unfortunately, that’s the case with all known 78′s that feature Howard Armstrong. Although I doubt that an Armstrong 78 will ever come my way, it is comforting to see in the following discography just how much of his music is available digitally and on vinyl.

But before we jump into the discography, I’d like to take a stab at the question I posed at the beginning of this blog… who were the musicians that recorded as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops on April 3rd, 1930 in Knoxville?

· The bible of prewar blues discography, Dixon, Godrich, and Rye’s Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 lists the St. James Session participants [Tennessee Chocolate Drops] as: Howard Armstrong-violin, Carl Martin-string bass and Roland Martin-guitar.

· The gold-standard CD, Document DOCD 5229, lists the St. James Session participants [Tennessee Chocolate Drops] as: Howard Armstrong-violin, Carl Martin-guitar and Roland Armstrong-string bass.

As one reads through the hundreds of citations delineating the personnel on that session, you will almost always find one of the above line-ups quoted, but there is a third option, one seen much less frequently, that I give the most credence… that is: Howard Armstrong-violin, Carl Martin- string bass and Roland Armstrong – guitar.

It is universally agreed that Howard Armstrong played fiddle during the session, and that Carl Martin was present – but the question arises, did Carl Martin play guitar or string bass? Then that leave us with Roland… but which one? Martin or Armstrong… and on what instrument… guitar or string bass?

Other sources support both instrumental/personnel line-ups but careful reading of Howard Armstrong interviews, especially the Terry Zwigoff interviews of Howard in the 1990 78 Quarterly, Volume 1, #5 strongly support the following, third configuration:

[the following is condensed from five paragraphs in 78Quarterly – it is chronological, coherent and garnered from Zwigoff’s interviews between 1979 and 1985 when Howard’s memory was still quite sharp]:

“My brother Roland and I met a guy in Knoxville named Carl Martin. He was the younger brother of the blind fiddler Roland Martin… Carl played all the string instruments, and I especially admired his bass playing… And so, we formed a band called “The Tennessee Chocolate Drops,” me on fiddle, Carl on bass and my brother Roland [Armstrong] on guitar. …the talent scouts there heard about our group and had us record up on Gay and Vine [site of the St. James Hotel]… this was 1930. …I think the highlight on that record was Martin’s bass playing.

Zwigoff reinforces this configuration in his commentary on the 2010 release of the Criterion Collection edition of Louie Bluie, when he says the following concerning the matter: (“the… family band recorded at the St. James hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee for the Brunswick/Vocalion company. After the Tennessee Ramblers got done playing, Armstrong and his band were next up. Those days they were named the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and it was Howard, and his brother Roland on guitar I think, and Carl Martin, I think, played bass.

This is strong evidence for the line-up of Howard on fiddle, Carl Martin on bass and Roland Armstrong on guitar, however, not strong enough to be iron-clad, as evidenced by this promotional material from Blue Suit Records in 1995, when they released what turned out to be Armstrong’s last CD:

“When Howard was 14 he met Roland and Carl Martin in Knoxville and began travelling and playing in their band during the summer, returning to go to school in the fall. Roland Martin was a blind fiddle player and he inspired Howard to learn the instrument. In 1930 they [Howard and the Martin brothers] recorded four sides in Knoxville as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.” [Italics mine].

 

78 rpm DISCOGRAPHY:

Tennessee Chocolate Drops

Knoxville, TN (St. James Hotel) Thursday April 3rd, 1930

Howard Armstrong, violin; Roland Armstrong, guitar; Carl Martin, string bass

Vocalion 1517 — Knox County Stomp/ Vine Street Drag – est. fewer than five known copies

(Re. the title, “Vine Street Drag” … Armstrong once remarked to me that the actual title was “Vine Street Rag,” but it had been misunderstood and documented incorrectly by the Vocalion recording engineer. BB)

Tennessee Trio

Vocalion 1572 — (same as Vocalion 1517 above, released with name and catalog number changes for the hillbilly trade) – est. fewer than five known copies

   

Louie Bluie and Ted Bogan

Chicago, IL   Friday March 23rd, 1934

Howard Armstrong, violin; Ted Bogan, guitar, vocal

 

Bluebird B-5490 — There’s Nothing in This Wide, Wide World For Me/ I’m Through With You – evidently released, but there are no known copies of BB B-5490

Howard Armstrong, mandolin; Ted Bogan, guitar

Bluebird 8593 -- State Street Rag, from popsike.com

 

Bluebird B-5593 — State Street Rag/Ted’s Stomp – estimated fewer than five known copies

  

 

Image:  (http://www.popsike.com/index.html)

  

Howard Armstrong with Bumble Bee Slim?

 

Armstrong always insisted that he recorded (on 78 rpm records) with Amos (Bumble Bee Slim) Easton, however, he is not given direct credit on any Bumble Bee Slim 78 rpm record label and incontrovertible evidence has not been produced to substantiate his claims.

That said, Howard is referenced as a probable or possible accompanist for Bumble Bee Slim in Document Records liner notes, as well as in Dixon, Godrich, and Rye’s Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 discography entries for Bumble Bee Slim.

One likely date for this pairing would have been on Thursday, March 22nd, 1934 when Slim recorded for the Vocalion label in Chicago. Liner notes for Document Records DOCD-5261 credit Ted Bogan as the possible guitar player and Howard Armstrong as the probable mandolin player on the eight songs Bumble Bee Slim recorded on that date.

Slim also recorded the next day, Friday March 23rd, in Chicago… this time for the Bluebird label. According to Dixon, Godrich, and Rye — as evidenced by the matrix numbers issued that day — Slim recorded the four sides preceding and the two sides following Armstrong and Bogan’s recording of “State Street Rag” and “Ted’s Stomp.” Records show two guitars present, but uncredited, on the six sides Slim recorded March 23rd, the assumption, unsubstantiated, is that Armstrong and Bogan were the accompanists. BB Slim_Crumb

Further, liner notes for  Document Records DOCD-5262 credit Howard Armstrong as the probable violin player on one song during Slim’s Tuesday September 6th session, “Blues Blues,” issued on Decca 7098.

    

 

                                                                R. Crumb: Bumble Bee Slim

Bumble Bee Slim and His Three Sharks

Chicago, IL March 22, 1934

Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown) clarinet on East St. Louis Blues and Busy Devil; Jimmy Gordon, (possible), piano; Ted Bogan, (possible), guitar; Howard Armstrong (probable), mandolin.

 

Vocalion 2713 The New B&O Blues/Busy Devil

Vocalion 2728 Someday Things Will Be Breaking My Way/Baby So Long

Vocalion 2742 Runnin’ Drunk Blues/East St. Louis Blues

Vocalion 2773 Lost Confidence Blues/Wrecked Life Blues

   

Bumble Bee Slim

Chicago, IL March 23, 1934

Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown), piano; (two unknowns, Ted Bogan, (probable), guitar; Howard Armstrong (probable), guitar); (unknown), third guitar on Dead And Gone Mother.

  

Bluebird 5517 Squalling Panther Blues/ Dead And Gone Mother

Bluebird 5563 Sad And Lonesome/Bye Bye Baby Blues

Bluebird 5475 Sail On Little Girl, Sail On/Step Child

  

Bumble Bee Slim

  

Chicago, IL September, 1934

[on the “Blues Blues” side only] Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown), piano; Howard Armstrong (probable) or Carl Martin (possible), violin/plucked violin or mandolin.

  

Decca 7098 Blues Blues/The Death Of Leroy Carr

 

Armstrong also reported recording 78 rpm records in Chicago with Big Bill Broonzy, but unfortunately there is no documented evidence

to corroborate that claim.

 

   

LP DISCOGRAPHY:

Martin Bogan & Armstrong The Barnyard Dance/bbThe Barnyard Dance, autograph/bb

Martin Bogan & Armstrong The Barnyard Dance

Rounder Records #2003~ 1972

Carl Martin, mandolin; Ted Bogan, guitar; Howard Armstrong, fiddle; L.C. Armstrong, bass

 

SIDE ONE:

1. Lady be Good

2. Carl’s Blues

3. Corrina, Corrina

4. Barnyard Dance

5. Cacklin’ Hen

6. Sweet Georgia Brown

 

SIDE TWO :

1. French Blues

2. Mean Mistreatin’ Mama

3. Old Man Mose

4. Alice Blue Gown

5. Knox County Stomp

 

Martin Bogan & Armstrong/bb

Martin Bogan & Armstrong

Flying Fish #003 ~ 1974

Player credits not given in liner notes, assumed to be as per jacket photo:

Carl Martin, mandolin; Ted Bogan, guitar; Howard Armstrong, fiddle; Tom Armstrong, bass

 

SIDE ONE:

1. Let’s Give A Party

2. Chinatown

3. Do You Call That A Buddy

4. They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree

5. If You’se A Viper

6. Sweetheart Of Sigma Chi

 

SIDE TWO:

1. Blue Ridge Mountain Blues

2. Naggin Woman

3. Mexicali Rag

4. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out

5. You’ll Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me

  

Steve Goodman Jessie's Jig and Other Favorites/bb

Steve Goodman Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites

Asylum 7E-1037 ~ 1975

Steve Goodman, guitar, vocal; Jethro Burns, mandolin; Jeff Gutcheon, piano; Hugh McDonald, electric bass; Sheldon Plotkin, drums; Carl Martin, mandolin, vocal; Ted Bogan, acoustic guitar; Howard Armstrong, fiddle.

  

SIDE TWO:

5. Mama Don’t Allow It

  

Mama Don’t Allow It – Martin, Bogan and Armstrong with the Steve Goodman band–1975 (nice fiddle solo by Howard)

  

Martin Bogan & the Armstrongs That Old Gang of Mine/bb

Martin Bogan & the Armstrongs That Old Gang of Mine

Flying Fish #056 ~ 1978

Carl Martin, mandolin; Ted Bogan, guitar; Howard Armstrong, fiddle; Tom Armstrong, bass; With: Steve Goodman-electric and acoustic guitar; Jethro Burns- mandolin; Jeff Gutcheon-piano; Hugh McDonald- electric bass; Sheldon Plotkin-drums; Howard Levy-harmonica

 

SIDE ONE:

1. Yes Pappy Yes

2. In the Bottom

3. Marie

4. Ice Cream Freezer Blues

5. That Old Gang of Mine

 

SIDE TWO:

1. Jamaica Farewell

2. I’d Do Most Anything for You

3. Nagging Woman Blues

4. Sheik of Araby, The

5. Streets of Old Chicago

  

Louie Bluie Soundtrack LP, autographed/bbLouie Bluie autograph, close-up/bb

Louie Bluie Soundtrack – LP

Arhoolie 1095 ~ 1985

Howard Armstrong, vocal, fiddle; Ted Bogan, vocal, guitar; Tom Armstrong, bass;

With: “Banjo” Ikey Robinson, vocal, banjo; James “Yank” Rachell, vocal, mandolin; Willie Sievers, piano; Bob Cose, guitar; Mary Shepard, piano; Elsie Loweroy, vocal

 

SIDE ONE:

1. New State Street Rag

2. Nothing In This Wide World For Me

3. That’ll Never Happen No More

4. Ted’s Stomp

5. My Four Reasons

6. Barushka

7. 38 Pistol Blues

8. Darktown Strutter’s Ball

 

SIDE TWO:

1. When He Calls Me I Will Answer

2. Vine Street Drag

3. My Gal Sal Medley

4. State Street Rag

5. Du, Du Liechst Mir Im Herzen

6. Railroad Blues

7. Cacklin’ Hen

8. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams

  

CD DISCOGRAPHY:

 

Martin Bogan Armstrong Flying Fish CD/bb

Martin Bogan Armstrong, autograph, close-up/bb

Martin, Bogan and The Armstrongs – That Old Gang of Mine

Carl Martin, mandolin, vocal; Ted Bogan, guitar, vocal; Howard Armstrong, fiddle, vocal; Tom Armstrong, bass

Flying Fish FF70003 ~ 1992

 

This CD Covers both LPs, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong and That Old Gang of Mine, with the exception of “Naggin Woman” and “Mexicali Rag” from Martin, Bogan and Armstrong

 

1. Yes Pappy Yes

2. In the Bottom

3. Marie

4. Ice Cream Freezer Blues

5. That Old Gang of Mine

6. Jamaica Farewell

7. I’d Do Most Anything for You

8. Nagging Woman Blues

9. Sheik of Araby, The

10. Streets of Old Chicago

11. Let’s Give a Party

12. Chinatown

13. Do You Call That a Buddy?

14. They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree

15. If You’se a Viper

16. Sweetheart of Sigma Chi

17. Blue Ridge Mountain Blues

18. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

19. You’ll Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me

  

Carl Martin Complete Recorded Works/bb

Carl Martin Complete Recorded Works

Document DOCD-5229 ~ 1994

Carl Martin, bass; Ted Bogan, guitar; Howard Armstrong, fiddle, mandolin; Roland Armstrong, guitar

 

Tennessee Chocolate Drops

1. Knox County Stomp

2. Vine Street Drag

 

Louie Bluie & Ted Bogan

3. State Street Rag

4. Ted’s Stomp

  

Bumble Bee Slim Complete Recorded Works, Volume 1/bb

Bumble Bee Slim Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1

Document DOCD-5261 ~ 1994

Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown) clarinet on East St. Louis Blues and Busy Devil; Jimmy Gordon, (possible), piano; Ted Bogan, (possible), guitar; Howard Armstrong (probable), mandolin.

 

14. Someday Things Will Be Breaking My Way

15. Baby So Long

16. Lost Confidence Blues

17. The New B and O Blues

18. Wrecked Life Blues

19. Runnin` Drunk Blues

20. East St. Louis Blues

21. Busy Devil

 

Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown), piano; (two unknowns, Ted Bogan, (probable), guitar; Howard Armstrong (probable), guitar); (unknown), third guitar on Dead And Gone Mother.

 

22. Squalling Panther Blues

23. Sail On, Little Girl, Sail On

24. Dead And Gone Mother

  

Bumble Bee Slim Complete Recorded Works, Volume 2/bb

Bumble Bee Slim Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2

Document DOCD-5262 ~ 1994  

Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown), piano; (two unknowns, Ted Bogan, (probable), guitar; Howard Armstrong (probable), guitar);

  

1. Step Child

2. Sad and Lonesome

3. Bye Bye Baby Blues

 

Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), vocal; accompanied by: (unknown), piano; Howard Armstrong (probable), or Carl Martin (possible), violin/plucked violin or mandolin.

9. Blues Blues

 

Paul Geremia Self Portrait In Blues/bb

Paul Geremia Self Portrait In Blues

Red House Records RHR CD 77 ~ March 1995

Paul Geremia, guitar, piano, harmonica, vocal; Rory McLeod, upright bass;

  

Howard Armstrong, fiddle:

4. Midnight Hour Blues

9. Live Wire Blues

11. Drive Away Blues

12. Where Did I Lose Your Love

  

Howard Armstrong, Mandolin:

5. Shake It And Break It

  

Howard Armstrong, Quote:

14.

 

 Howard Armstrong Louie Bluie/bbLouie Bluie ...  autograph, close-up/bb

Howard Armstrong Louie Bluie

Blue Suit Records BS-106D  ~ March 1995

Howard Armstrong, fiddle, mandolin, vocal;

With: Ralphe Armstrong, bass; Ray Kamalay, guitar, background vocals; John Rockwood, harmonica

 

1. Lady Be Good

2. St. Louis Blues

3. You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You

4. John Henry Intro – (spoken)

5. John Henry

6. Sittin’ on Top of the World

7. Howard’s Rag

8. Louie Bluie – (spoken)

9. Louie Bluie Blues

10. This Little Song of Mine

11. Dinah

12. Wading Through Deep Water

13. Bogan’s Secret – (spoken)

14. Chinatown

15. Betty & Dupree

16. Instruments – (spoken)

17. Summertime

18. When He Calls Me I Will Answer

  

Before The Blues - Volume 2 - Various Artists/bb

Before The Blues – Volume 2 – Various Artists

Yazoo 2016 ~ 1996

 

Louie Bluie & Ted Bogan

Howard Armstrong, mandolin, Ted Bogan, guitar

15. State Street Rag

 

 

 Times Ain't Like They Used To Be - Volume 2 - Various Artists/bb

Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be – Volume 2 – Various Artists

Yazoo 2029 ~ 1997

Howard Armstrong, mandolin, Ted Bogan, guitar

20. State Street Rag

  

Louie Bluie Soundtrack - CD/bb

Louie Bluie Soundtrack – CD

Arhoolie CD 470 ~ 1998

Howard Armstrong, vocal, fiddle; Ted Bogan, vocal, guitar; Tom Armstrong, bass;

 

With: “Banjo” Ikey Robinson, vocal, banjo; James “Yank” Rachell, vocal, mandolin; Willie Sievers, piano; Bob Cose, guitar; Mary Shepard, piano; Elsie Loweroy, vocal; Sleepy John Estes, guitar, vocal

  

1. New State Street Rag

2. Nothing In This Wide World For Me

3. That’ll Never Happen No More

4. Ted’s Stomp

5. My Four Reasons

6. Barushka

7. 38 Pistol Blues

8. Darktown Strutter’s Ball

9. When He Calls Me I Will Answer

10. Vine Street Drag

11. My Gal Sal Medley

12. State Street Rag

13. Du, Du Liechst Mir Im Herzen

14. Railroad Blues

15. Cacklin’ Hen

16. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams

17. Vine Street Drag (2)

18. The Girl I Love

19. Milk Cow Blues

20. When You Feel Down And Out

  

Carl Martin & Brownie McGhee - Carolina Blues

Carl Martin & Brownie McGhee – Carolina Blues

Wolf 114 ~ 1998

Carl Martin, bass; Ted Bogan, guitar; Howard Armstrong, fiddle, mandolin; Roland Armstrong, guitar

 

Tennessee Chocolate Drops

1. Knox County Stomp

2. Vine Street Drag

  

Violin Sing The Blues For Me - Various Artists/bbViolin sing... autograph, close-up/bb

Violin Sing The Blues For Me – Various Artists

Old Hat Records CD1002 ~ 1999

Carl Martin, bass; Howard Armstrong, fiddle; Roland Armstrong, guitar

 

Tennessee Chocolate Drops

11. Vine Street Drag

  

Rare Blues Blue Boot #1

Rare Blues Blue Boot #1

Blue Suit Records ~ 2002

Howard Armstrong, mandolin, vocal;

With: Ralphe Armstrong, bass; Ray Kamalay, guitar, background vocals

 

5. La Cucaracha (spoken intro)

6. La Cucaracha

  

Rare Blues Blue Boot #2

Rare Blues Blue Boot #2

Blue Suit Records ~ 2002

Howard Armstrong, mandolin, vocal;

With: Ralphe Armstrong, bass; Ray Kamalay, guitar, background vocals

 

4. Louie Bluie Blues (spoken intro)

5. Louie Bluie Blues

 

 Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps & Blues/bb

Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps & Blues

Document DOCD-32-20-3 ~ 2003

Howard Armstrong, mandolin; Ted Bogan, guitar

 

Louie Bluie & Ted Bogan

1. State Street Rag

  

A Richer Tradition - Various Artists/bb

A Richer Tradition – Various Artists

JSP7798B ~ 2007

Carl Martin, bass; Howard Armstrong, fiddle; Roland Armstrong, guitar

 

Tennessee Chocolate Drops

15. Knox County Stomp

   

VIDEOGRAPHY:

 

Louie Bluie VHS/bbLouie Bluie VHS, autograph, close-up/bb

Louie Bluie

1985 VHS ~ Terry Zwigoff ~ Pacific Arts Video

  

Sweet old Song dvd-cover

Sweet Old Song

2002 VHS ~ 2009 DVD ~ Leah Mahan

  

Louie Bluie DVD/bb

Louie Bluie

2010 DVD ~ Terry Zwigoff ~ Criterion Collection

       

 

Credits and Thanks to:

 

BARBARA WARD ARMSTRONG

TERRY ZWIGOFF

LEAH MAHAN

Terrapin Tim Volem: For his sharp eye and sharp pencil

Dixon, Godrich, and Rye Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 Oxford University Press

Tony Russell Country Music Records, A Discography, 1931-1942 Oxford University Press

R.R. McLeod’s 11 volume series, Document Blues Lyrics books

Meade, Spotswood and Meade Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina

Blues Access Magazine:

No. 35 Fall 1998

A Conversation with the Erstwhile Minstrel Singer Howard Armstrong

by David Feld

 

78 Quarterly:

LOUIE BLUIE The Life And Music Of Howard Armstrong as told to Terry Zwigoff

Volume 1, Number 5 1990

Volume 1, Number 6 1991

(Three part article, but no third installment was forthcoming)

 

Living Blues:

Howard Armstrong: The Interview By John Anthony Brisbin

Issue 169, Volume 34, Number 5 – Sept/Oct. 2003

Issue 170, Volume 34, Number 6 – Nov/Dec. 2003

Issue 171, Volume 35, Number 1 – Jan/Feb. 2004

 

The HistoryMakers interview:

177 minutes/92 segments, filmed April 12, 2003 at the Armstrong home, The Piano Factory, Boston, MA Interviewed by Larry Crowe, video by Scott Stearns

http://www.thehistorymakers.com/

http://www.idvl.org/thehistorymakers/Bio433.html

 

Fretboard Journal: 

Interview of Terry Zwigoff

Spring 2011

http://www.fretboardjournal.com/features/online/terry-zwigoff-revisits-louie-bluie

 

Blues Mandolin Website:

http://www.bluesmandolin.de/page10.html

http://www.bluesmandolin.de/page11.html

http://www.bluesmandolin.de/page12.html

 

The Centrum/ The Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshops and Festival and the Centrum/ The Port Townsend American Fiddle Tunes Workshops and Festival for the yeas of presenting Howard Armstrong as a faculty member and festival performer.

http://www.centrum.org/

 

Liner notes on the various LPs and CDs cited in the Discography

And, of course, the films:

Louie Bluie

Sweet Old Song

 
 
 
Images/content: The large majority of images are from my personal collection, these are noted with a “/bb“ at the end of the image title when hovering over the image.
 
Other images are deemed “open access” and will be duly credited whenever it is possible. Notice of copyright protection in any VernacularShellac blog does not and will not apply to open access images. If I have used any images or content that is copyright protected, please advise and appropriate credit will be given. All VernacularShellac content, excepting that excluded above, is ©2011 by Bill Boslaugh

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized