I came upon this one day:
Now, I’m equally passionate about roots music and root vegetables, and it’s not every day that I run across an album with a painting of vegetables having a hoedown on the cover. I figured that if the music was any good, it would be a bonus.
What a bonus it turned out to be! I managed to stumble upon Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, who, at the time of this recording were considered to be the last African American string band playing. Carl Martin, Ted Bogan, and Howard Armstrong played together in various string bands in the 1920’s and 30’s. After struggling to make a living by busking, playing dances, and working in touring medicine shows, the players eventually parted ways to join the army, work in manufacturing jobs, get married, have kids, get divorced, etc. Like many early blues musicians whose recordings faded into obscurity in the 40’s and 50’s, these guys’ recordings (as the Four Aces and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops) caught the attention of folkies in the 1970’s who “rediscovered” the members of the group and booked shows at cafes and college campuses for them. It was during this time that they made a couple of LPs, including the one I picked up.
I know all of this because Howard Armstrong, the fiddle player (and the artist responsible for the anthropomorphic vegetables on the album cover) was also the subject of a Terry Zwigoff film called Louie Bluie, which the Library has on DVD.
Advisory: This clip has a couple of swears in it. It would probably get a PG rating.
By the time Zwigoff filmed this in the mid-80’s, Carl Martin had passed away, but Armstrong was still playing with Ted Bogan and a handful for other musicians who, although each well into his 70’s, still could play an amazing array of music for an eager young audience. Even if you don’t have much of an interest in folk music, you should watch this movie. Armstrong is a fascinating character, and his musical repertoire includes blues, country, gospel, show tunes, pop standards, and, perhaps most incredibly, folk songs in Italian, German, and Slovak, to name a few. (In addition to playing violin, uke, and mandolin, and painting and drawing beautifully, Howard evidently picks up languages quickly.)
In the 30’s, these musicians would often “pull doors,” or go into bars and clubs to play for tips (if they weren’t kicked out immediately). In the highly segregated industrial cities that they played in, immigrant workers typically hung out in ethnic clubs and bars, and African American musicians were typically not welcome to perform. But Armstrong’s gift for language paid off; because his group could play popular folk songs and he could sing in a number of European languages, doors were opened that would otherwise have been shut tight.
It’s a great image, isn’t it? A Polish bar in the shadow of the J&L Works on the South Side, a group of workers signing a folk song that makes them feel at home, led by an all African American string band whose fiddle player sings along in perfect Polish, perhaps with a slight Tennessee accent.
The Library has a compilation of African American fiddle recordings including two of Armstrong’s — Vine Street Rag (with the Tennessee Chocolate Drops) and Ted’s Stomp (as Louie Bluie with Ted Bogan) — called Violin, Sing the Blues for Me.
There’s another CD on which Vine Street Rag is compiled called Before the Blues, and it includes some other tunes that provide a great snapshot of this great old time music.
And finally you can, nay must, listen to the Louie Bluie soundtrack. Follow this link, click American Song, and enter your library card number to stream it.
-Dan, who hopes to someday have “raconteur” included in his list of occupations on Wikipedia.