'Louie Bluie' film posterAcclaimed musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong was the subject of not one, but two POV films over the years, Louie Bluie (1988) by Terry Zwigoff and Sweet Old Song (2002) by Leah Mahan. Armstrong passed away at the age of 94 in 2003. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.

Louie Bluie premiered on POV during our first season in 1988. The film is a lively portrait of the then 76-year-old Armstrong — musician, artist, raconteur and rogue — and was Terry Zwigoff’s first film. Zwigoff went on to make the Sundance Grand Jury prize-winning documentary Crumb in 1994 and the feature film Ghost World in 2001, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. We caught up with Zwigoff earlier this week and he recalled his first encounter with Armstrong on a piece of vinyl.*

Terry ZwigoffTerry Zwigoff: “I came to meet Howard Armstrong because of an old 78 rpm record he made on the Bluebird label in 1934. I collected 78s of 1920s and ’30s blues, jazz, and country music, and dabbled at playing mandolin, trying to learn from listening to these old records. I traded another collector out of his copy of “State Street Rag,” especially intrigued because it featured mandolin. I got the record home, and the more I listened to it, the more I realized just how remarkable it was — an incredible display of dazzling virtuosity and bravado, credited only to the pseudonym “Louie Bluie.” It took on a certain mystique to me.

I reverentially filed it away alphabetically in my collection, knowing enough about music to know there was no point trying to learn to reproduce the notes. This thing was a work of wonder. I didn’t want to sully it’s uniqueness by merely trying to copy it’s notes. It was about more than the notes … Even if this guy never made another record, his place as one of the greatest mandolin players of all time was assured.

Who the hell was this ‘Louie Bluie’?! This 78 was recorded in 1934, so I assumed he was dead, this being almost half a century later. But I was so impressed with that record, that I set out to try and dig up some information about it and write a little article for a 78 collector’s magazine. Two years of detective work later, I found a phone number for Mr. Armstrong who was, it turned out, very much alive and living in Detroit.

‘Yes, you can come visit me and interview me. Bring your tape recorder and fifty dollars when you come.’ CLICK.

As much as fifty dollars was to me in those days, it seemed a cheap enough price to meet such a musical hero. When I finally met him face to face a few months later, that tape recorder suddenly seemed woefully inadequate to capture just what a truly remarkable man he was, every bit as exuberant and full of bravado and talent and mystery as that old record.

Howard playing mandolin at the age of 11

Louie Bluie, aged 11, with his mandolin. Drawing by Howard Armstrong

I set out instead to make a documentary film about him. I’m proud of the resulting film, and glad I made it. Howard was a friend and mentor to me over the years it took to make the film, my hero, and still an inspiration to this day.”

Listen to Louie Bluie and his band play “State Street Rag” on “Howard Armstrong Day” in his hometown of LaFollette, Tennessee, October 13, 2000. Nearly 60 years after that Bluebird recording, you can hear that Armstrong hadn’t lost his “dazzling virtuosity and exuberance.” You can also watch this performance in Chapter 4 of Sweet Old Song.

Louie Bluie is currently unavailable on DVD, but Zwigoff hopes to have it released within the next year or two.

Read Part IV of Remembering Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong in which musicians Taj Mahal, James “Sparky” Rucker and Elijah Wood talk about how they were inspired by his music.

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