Howard Armstrong

string band musician, LaFollette
National Heritage Fellowship (1990)
Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award (2003)

Fiddle and mandolin player Howard Armstrong (1909-2003) lived in Chicago, Detroit, and Boston during his adult life, but he spent his childhood in Tennessee where his father labored in the steel and coal industries. He was born in Dayton, lived for a time in Sparta, and became a musician during a longer residence in LaFollette. As a teenager, he frequently performed on the streets in Knoxville, and from the beginning his music showed diverse influences ranging from hillbilly to tin-pan alley and jazz. He was sometimes known as “Louie Bluie” from an early recording pseudonym. As a professional player in northern cities, he was exposed to even more cultural diversity than he’d experienced in Tennessee coal camps, and he became conversant with a variety of languages and ethnic music traditions. Late in his career, Armstrong and some of his early musical cohorts were rediscovered as veterans of forgotten African American country string band music. He took part in the Tennessee program at the 1986 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and two films were made about his life.