A ballad, a blues & Louie Bluie
Carpetbag Theatre premieres play about the life
of string-band musician Howard Armstrong
By Doug Mason
Sunday, March 16, 2008
“It’s somewhere between a ballad and a blues.”
The question was: How do you describe your music? You or I might have answered “between a ballad and the blues.” It takes the ear of a musician or a poet to switch one little article and make a sentence sing.
Between a ballad and a blues…
The lyrical self-definition came from Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, who was a musician and a poet. And an artist. composer, storyteller, linguist, sensualist. He spoke seven languages and played 20 musical instruments. He was a virtuoso on the fiddle. He was a string-band musician, a musical style with roots in Africa. He represented the music when it was re-embraced in the 1970s. And he transcended it with a personal repertoire that embraced all music, from blues and gospel to Tin Pan Alley and show tunes to Hawaiian, German and Italian songs.
All his life Armstrong kept a journal, illustrated with lurid and erotic drawings that, in his old age, after he became famous, were celebrated as authentic pop art.
In 1986, when he was in his late 70s, an acclaimed documetary, “Louie Bluie,” named for the pseudonym he recorded under in the 1920s, made Armstrong a star. He enjoyed his fame for a long time, remaining active until his death in 2003, at age 94.
“Between a Ballad and a Blues,” a world premiere play from the Carpetbag Theatre, tells the story of that remarkable life. Performances will be Thursday-Sunday, March 20-23, at the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theatre.
Playwright Linda Parris-Bailey first met Armstrong in the late 1980s. During that interview is when she got the answer about his music. “It’s somewhere between a ballad and a blues.” She would meet Armstrong several more times. The executive director of Carpetbag Theatre remains friendly with Armstrong’s widow, Barbara Ward Armstrong, who lives in Boston.
Writing a play about Armstrong stuck with Parris-Bailey as an idea for about 15 years. She dived into other projects, but “Louie Bluie” was always on her mind. Finally, a few years ago, she decided to get serious about writing the play. And about raising the money to produce it. Around $72,000 went into researching and workshopping the project, the playwright says. It’s costing about $60,000 to stage it.
Carpetbag Theatre is a co-operative African-American theater company dedicated to producing new works. The process begins with the playwright, but evolves to its finished form through collaboration with the company members. It has been about a two-year process to ready “Between a Ballad and a Blues” for its world premiere.
The play features the story and the music of Armstrong and the musicians he is most associated with, Carl Martin and Ted Bogan. Armstrong and Martin, along with Armstrong’s brother Roland, made their first recordings together in Knoxville in 1930. The Brunswick-Vocalion label marketed “Knox County Stomp” and “Vine Street Drag” for the country music market, calling the musicians the Tennessee Trio, and for its “race” market, under the name the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.
William Howard Taft Armstrong (named for the President of the United States) was born in 1909 in Dayton, Tenn. He grew up in LaFollete, back when it was a coal mining town. His neighbors were German, Polish, Italian. He learned their languages. And their songs. As a young man, he would run into ethnic bars and start playing the patrons’ music, in their native tongues. He did it quick, hoping to get the music noticed before his color. If he didn’t get thrown out, he made a little money.
Armstrong and Martin toured the South together, playing everything from medicine shows to white-society dances. In 1933, they met guitarist Ted Bogan, and the trio traveled North together, first to Chicago, where they played at the World’s Fair.
World War II broke up the band. After the war, there was little demand for string-band musicians. Martin and Bogan continued on as session musicians. But Armstrong left music to sup-port his family on the assembly lines of Detroit’s auto industry. He retired from Chrysler in 1971.
Martin, Bogan and Armstrong reunited a few years later, when a resurgence of interest in string-band music had them in demand at clubs and festivals. Martin died in 1979.
After the success of of “Louie Bluie,” Bogan and Armstrong often performed after screenings of the film (including a 1980s appearance at the University of Tennessee). Bogan died in 1990. Armstrong continued on, performing his final concert just months before his death in 2003.
Parris-Bailey said Armstrong remained interested in new music all his life, she said. To honor that, “Between a Ballad and a Blues” ends with a performance by Rising Appalachia, an experimental roots music duo from Atlanta.
The show features Bert Tanner as Armstrong, Carlton “Starr” Releford as Bogan, Clinton Harris as Martin, Lyigia Simmons as Leola Manning/Barbara Ward Armstrong, Linda Upton Hill as Daisy Armstrong, and Mikael Merchant as a young fiddle student.
The band features Samuel Thompson on fiddle, Nancy Brennen Strange on guitar, Sean McCollough on mandolin, Harold Nage on guitar, Don Cassell on mandolin and vocalist Kelley Jolly.
Doug Mason may be reached at 865-342-6441.
E.W. Scripps Co.
© 2008 Knoxville News Sentinel