Howard Armstrong may be the music world’s leading 79-year-old rapscallion.
Armstrong, who makes a rare Los Angeles appearance in his performing guise of Louie Bluie at the Music Machine tonight, was largely unknown even to connoisseurs of pre-World War II black music until five years ago. But the 1985 documentary film “Louie Bluie” and its sound-track album provided a sparkling introduction to the music and indomitable spirit of the mandolin player, fiddler, painter and raconteur.
“My philosophy is that life is like a violin or a tool--if you never use it, what is it?” said Armstrong by phone from Detroit. “Life is made to live and I find that to some people, life is a disease. When you go from day in to day out like your shoes hurt your feet and you don’t see anything beautiful or have anything to relate to that’s inspiring or creative, then what is it?”
Armstrong will be joined at the Music Machine by his son Tom on acoustic bass and guitarist Ted Bogan. The show is also scheduled to include a screening of the uncut version of “Louie Bluie” and--tentatively--a question-and-answer session with Armstrong.
Armstrong, who acquired his nickname from a drunken woman at a party in 1932, didn’t quite match the string of hilarious, ribald one-liners he unleashed in the film during the phone interview. But that didn’t hinder his storytelling flair as he spun off several anecdotes from his life.
“When I played one time in Old Town in Chicago, one smart brother walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, can you play B. B. King?’ ” Armstrong recalled. “I said, ‘Of course, I can play B. B. King. If you can put some strings on him, tune him up and give me a fiddle bow, yeah, I’ll play him.’ ”
Armstrong had to call on a different kind of resourcefulness in Chicago during the 1930s when his quartet of street musicians were barely surviving by “pulling doors"--walking into a bar or restaurant to play and passing the hat for money. One Monday they decided to try their luck at an Italian restaurant--only to encounter a hostile reception because boxer Joe Louis had beaten Primo Carnera that night.
“There was no avenue of escape and these guys really meant business,” he remembered. “We hadn’t done anything wrong except being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“But they didn’t know I was speaking better Italian grammatically when I was 9 years old than I was English, so I started talking to ‘em in Italian and the whole atmosphere changed. We played there every Monday night for over a year.”
Armstrong was born in Dayton, Tenn.--which he called “the monkey town” because it was the site of the Scopes evolution trial--and grew up in LaFollette in eastern Tennessee. The town had a blast furnace with a work force composed largely of European immigrants, and Armstrong picked up some “Tennessee Spanish” to go along with his Italian, German and “cotton field Polish.”
Armstrong was given his first mandolin when his father, who worked at the blast furnace and played music on the side, decided to take up preaching. He started painting as a child, using homemade paints and brushes until he could afford proper art materials.
He played around the Knoxville, Tenn., area in “string bands"--groups featuring mandolins, violins and guitars that played a mixture of popular songs, reels, waltzes, jigs and blues material acceptable to the well-heeled white audiences they frequently performed for. He hooked up with Bogan and Carl Martin in the ‘20s and they made their first recordings in Knoxville in 1930 before hitting the road and winding up in Chicago.
They worked primarily in Chicago’s ethnic immigrant neighborhoods, adding an assortment of German, Polish and Lithuanian material. In 1934, they recorded “State Street Rag"/"Ted’s Stomp,” the 78 of which led record collector and film maker Terry Zwigoff on a six-year search to find Louie Bluie and Ted Bogan 50 years later.
After returning to the South and serving in the Army during World War II, Armstrong settled in Detroit in 1944 and largely gave up music. He worked in auto plants and supplemented his income by painting signs and murals around the city.
In 1972, Armstrong reactivated his musical career after receiving a phone call from Bogan and Martin in Chicago. Louie Bluie has been performing sporadically at festivals and club engagements since then, including one State Department-sponsored tour of South America.
The “Louie Bluie” film has brought more opportunities for Armstrong to travel and perform. But don’t expect him to lose his lust for life--not while there’s still time to play music, paint, make some of the good-luck “tikis” he’ll bring to the Music Machine or work on his illustrated diaries.
“You didn’t come here to stay forever, but it’s not how long you live,” said Armstrong. “Some people just live to burn up oxygen or destroy the ozone or whatever.
“You can’t be the same as the years begin to pile up on you, but an old proverb by some philosopher said, ‘Upon him who is of a bright and sunny disposition, the weight of the years hang lightly. But to him who is of a negative and disgruntled attitude, youth and old age are equally a burden.’ ”