Archive for the ‘Howard Armstrong’ Category

Howard Armstrong and Willie Sievers

June 13, 2012

Howard Armstrong

Willie Sievers

Terry Zwigoff, the director of “Louie Bluie” (about fiddler Howard Armstrong), recounts a chance meeting between Armstrong and Wllie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers (edited from

My original intention was to write an article about Louie Bluie and “State Street Rag” for an English magazine called Old Time Music.  It was just a little thin publication, maybe 500 people subscribed to it. It had photographs of rare record labels, photographs of musicians from the ‘20s, discographies and a little bit of whatever info or stories they could find out about their lives.

I set out to do that with Louie Bluie and I assumed the guy who was using the pseudonym “Louie Bluie” was long dead since this record was recorded half a century before. But when I tracked him down still alive, living in Detroit, I was rather amazed. It turned out his real name was Howard Armstrong and he was originally a member of a great band called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops in the 1920s. I went out there to meet him and sat down with a tape recorder. He told me to bring along fifty bucks to pay for his time, and I recorded an oral history over three days. After hanging out with him I thought he’d be a great subject for a documentary.

We went down to La Follete, Tennessee, where Howard was born. He was thinking, “Ah, there’s probably a lot of old friends of mine still alive, and relatives that are really good musicians. Let’s go back there and film them.” And, of course, we get there and everybody’s dead or moved away, and there’s nothing to film. And I’m like, “Oh, Jesus, what are we going to do now?”

So, we’re sort of aimlessly driving around trying to figure out what to film, and there’s a nearby town called Clinton, Tennessee, I think it’s about eight miles away from La Follette. It’s just a little town with a little main street. We’re going through there looking for something to eat for lunch, and we see a banner that says “Music at the Big Barn every Saturday. Bring your fiddle.”  I said, “Oh, let’s go over there.”

I go inside and this woman comes up to me, looks vaguely familiar, and welcomes me.  She says, “Hi, my name is Willie. What’s your name?” And I tell my name is Terry and I’m from California. And she says, “Oh, what are you doing here?” I start to explain to her, and about that time I realize she looked really familiar. And I flash back to this cover of an old issue of Old Time Music, the magazine I was going to write the Louie Bluie article for. But I remembered it because it had her photo on the cover when she was 18-years-old, holding a really rare Gibson guitar!

It was a striking photo, not only for the fact that she’s holding this guitar, but because she’s strikingly beautiful, which is something you rarely see in old-time musicians. I, of course, was very interested in the story, which had other pictures of her, including one from just a few years before when she was in her 60s.

So it all came back to me, and I said, “Are you Willie Sievers from the Tennessee Ramblers?” And about that time Howard Armstrong sticks his head in the door and she spots him from across the room, gets all excited and yells for her brother who played banjo on her family band’s records. She knew exactly who he was, and the last time they had seen him was 50 years before that, at the one time their paths had ever crossed, in Knoxville at the St. James Hotel recording session for Vocalion Brunswick. Both their family bands recorded like two tunes on the same day.

Back then, the Sievers were very knocked-out by Armstrong’s fiddle playing. Armstrong and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops did a tune called “Vine Street Drag” and he’s just unbelievable. And even though in the film I capture him at age 76, trying to play the same tune he’s not quite all there, it’s still like 10 percent of his former talent, but that talent is up there with somebody like Michelangelo. So it’s still pretty prominent, it’s still pretty important.

“Vine Street Drag,” played by the Tennessee Chocolate Drops (Howard Armstrong-fiddle):