When 91-year-old string-band musician Howard Armstrong performs Friday at the Swallow Hill Music Association's Roots of the Blues Festival, he'll be something of an anomaly. He doesn't call himself a bluesman, though he knows how to play the blues. Instead, he plays a little bit of everything: old-time, jazz, blues, ethnic songs, even something in Chinese.
For Armstrong, it was a matter of survival. Growing up in La Follette, Tennessee, among immigrant laborers of every ilk, multilingual skills came naturally to him. Armstrong can converse in snippets of Polish, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and, yes, Mandarin Chinese. "I always say association brings on assimilation," he notes. "People feel kinda special towards you if you make the effort to speak their language." So while he knew the blues, he also knew polkas and Italian ballads and swing tunes.
Armstrong's first instrument, picked up when he was nine, was a lute-shaped, Italian-style "tater-bug mandolin." He switched to fiddle around age twelve and in his mid-twenties formed a family band with his four brothers, each of whom played a different stringed instrument. "My dad was a table waiter, and he always had a little gig for us. That was in Jelico, Tennessee, which was the hometown of the Metropolitan Opera star Grace Moore," he recalls. "Miss Moore was elated when she heard us. She said to my father, 'Uncle'--in those days, whites didn't call blacks Mr. or Mrs., it was usually 'Uncle' and 'Auntie'--she said, 'You should take these boys up north. They really are wonderful.'" At the time, his father only "grunted something" in response, but Armstrong did soon make it north, to Chicago and Detroit.
"Living in Chicago, there was a lot of competition between street musicians--one would try to outdo the other," he remembers. "I went into neighborhoods a lot of black musicians would be afraid to go into. We was skifflin'--that means pullin' doors, looking for work. A lot of the guys liked to follow me. I'm not trying to put flowers on myself, but they could get some chips in their pockets to pay the rent, following me."
Always savvy, Armstrong learned to switch musical styles on a dime. "I came up with the old hardcore blues," he says. "The blues were a way of life with black people. I came out of the South, where any musician who could plunk on a fiddle or guitar knew some blues. Up north, I learned, most black musicians turned up their noses at those nasty old blues. The white audiences didn't like to hear blues. We'd be playing the blues, and they'd ask, 'What kind of rot you playing?' So we'd end up playing popular songs of the day."
Even then, it wasn't always easy. "We had been places where there'd always be somebody that was just plain racist and didn't want us to play," Armstrong says. But help was often offered: "They say music charms--I've seen four and five guys pick up some loudmouth like that and throw him out the door."
When you're over ninety, the future is nearly a moot subject, and it's no different for Armstrong. But he hopes to continue finding new things to do: "Nobody's learned to see around the corner. Life is always good; there's nothing like life. And there's nothing accomplished in death, unless you're an undertaker or mortician."
Roots of the Blues Festival. At Eulipions Cultural Center, 1770 Sherman Street: Otis Taylor, Mary Flower Duo and Lionel Young Trio, 7:30 p.m. April 22, free. At Swallow Hill Music Hall, 71 East Yale Street: Howard Armstrong and Robert B. Jones, 8 p.m. April 23; Henry Townsend and Roy Rogers with Shana Morrison, 8 p.m. April 24; $17-$22 nightly/$30-$37 festival ticket, 303-777-1003.