Terry Zwigoff Revisits Louie Bluie

Film director Terry Zwigoff is probably best know for Crumb, his documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb and Ghost World, a darkly humorous tale of old records and teenage alienation. But I think his best movie is Louie Bluie, a documentary about the charismatic blues and string-band musician whose real name was Howard Armstrong. In the ‘70s, Zwigoff became obsessed with Armstrong’s mandolin rendition of “State Street Rag” on what turned out to be an extremely rare 78 rpm record.

Zwigoff wanted to write an article about Louie Bluie and “State Street Rag” for a now defunct English magazine but there was no information about the mysterious musician. Luckily there was another name on the record label, and since he knew there was a State Street in Chicago, he took a chance and looked up musician Ted Bogan in the Chicago phone book. To his surprise, it was the same Ted Bogan who played guitar on “State Street Rag,” and his friend Howard Armstrong was nearby, alive and well.

In 1979, Zwigoff started filming Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, using up his life savings in the first few weeks. He followed the musician over the next five years, documenting his life and capturing a wonderful character in full swing.

For years Louie Bluie, which was released in 1985, was unavailable except on well-worn VHS copies. Happily, the Criterion Collection has added Louie Bluie to its catalog. And just in time it turns out. When I interviewed Zwigoff about the reissue, he told me that the film stock was starting to decompose in much the same way the binding or pickguards on old instruments do. He estimates that if Criterion hadn’t restored the film, it would have completely decomposed in two or three years.

Louie Bluie and fellow musicians

[From left to right: Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, Yank Rachell, Banjo Ikey Robinson, Ted Bogan and Tom Armstrong. Courtesy Criterion Collection.]

Fretboard Journal: What drew you to Louie Bluie as a subject?

Terry Zwigoff: I had an old Bluebird record of Louie Bluie playing “State Street Rag” on mandolin and I found it such a dazzling display of talent. I was playing the mandolin, sort of specializing in ragtime mandolin and I think I was the perfect audience for this record.  If anybody’s going to be excited by it, it’s going to be me. I later found out there were only two existing copies of that record, so that fact, along with the magnificent music caused the disc to take on this mystic quality for me.

FJ: Have any others copies turned up since the film was released?

TZ: One more turned up on eBay last year. They are very oddly rare. You know, Robert Johnson records are a lot more common than that usually. There’s usually a dozen or so of each of those that exist. And Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, there are 25 to 50 of each of those that exist. Generally speaking it’s very odd for a record from a big label like Bluebird to be so rare like that.

Anyway, 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.

FJ: You weren’t a filmmaker then were you? What were you doing when you decided to make the movie?

TZ: I was working at the Department of Social Services as a Medi-Cal intake worker. When I decided to make the movie I just quit. I was very naïve about the whole thing—how much money it would cost, how much work it would be and I burned through my life savings in the first week-and-a-half, trying to learn how to make a film. I had never made a film in my life. I had no idea how to do it, but I recommend doing it that way to people that want to learn how to make a film. That’s a pretty intensive film school that lets you see your life savings go burning through the camera. It was nerve racking, believe me, it was very nerve racking. But it was a very effective film school for me.

FJ: Apart from the music, was there anything else you wanted to show in the film?

TZ: One thing I wanted to do was contrast Howard’s current living situation, which wasn’t very good, with his earlier life as an extremely talented performer. I also wanted to do something I’d never seen in any other film about blues music: try to include some of the sexuality and humor that was such a huge part of the music.

All the other films about the blues I’d seen tended to be rather sanitized in that way, so I think I sort of over-compensated for that. So I delved into Howard’s amazing hand-drawn book the ABC’s of Pornography a bit more than I would do today. But I think I point out in the commentary that when Blind Lemon Jefferson is singing “Black Snake Moan” he’s not talking about a carnivorous reptile. So that rawness and lewdness is very inherent in the music.

FJ: One thing that surprised me was that not all the musicians knew each other and that you brought them all together for the film.

TZ: Well, Howard Armstrong and Ted Bogan went back together to the ‘20s. They also played with Carl Martin, who I got to meet, but he died just before we started filming. Carl was going to be a huge part of this film. He and Armstrong had this wonderful bantering relationship that I thought would be the heart of the movie. I said, “Oh, God, what am I gonna do now?” Bogan and Armstrong had been together forever, but Bogan was on a lot of medication, and he wasn’t much of a foil for Armstrong anymore.

I started thinking, since I played mandolin, “Are there any other black mandolin players still alive?” There weren’t that many to begin with in the ‘20s. There was a guy named Alfred Martin and there was Bobby Leecan, who played with the Need More Band, who was one of the greatest mandolin players … very distinctive style. There’s this guy Al Miller, who recorded on Brunswick. He was a great mandolin player, too.

Then I remembered Yank Rachell. I had a few of his Victor records with Sleepy John Estes from the 1920s and those are all masterpieces. Somebody had told me was still alive and living in Indianapolis. I tracked him down and I got him to come to Chicago.  He never met Armstrong and Bogan before. I introduced him the night before we started filming and they hit it off.

Banjo Ikey Robinson was a little bit reticent to be in this film. He said, “Well, you know, I have a reputation in jazz.” Indeed, he did. He was a heavyweight guy in the world of jazz. He recorded with Jelly Roll Morton. He played with everybody from Louis Armstrong to Fletcher Henderson to Coleman Hawkins. He didn’t want to sort of frivolously get in together with a bunch of guys he never heard of, who might just be a bunch of like, you know, bumbling idiots who could barely play. But once he met these guys and liked them personally, and heard ‘em play, he came around. It’s the kind of music Ikey Robinson started out playing before he played jazz. He played country music around the house with his family band as well. I think he grew up appreciating it.

So he took to it, and the guys hit it off. But a lot of people think they’re all old friends that go back to the ‘20s, that all of them had known each other for 60 years, when in fact a couple of them had just met the night before. Personally, to me, one of the striking things about revisiting the film after 25 years was that these guys are all dead [now]. We’ll never see them again.

FJ: Howard Armstrong did give it a good run.

TZ: He gave it a good run.  Ninety-three, I think he was when he died.

FJ: Yep, and still looking like he was 40.

TZ: I know, that’s very odd. He never drank in his entire life. Never did drugs. Never smoked. That helped, I guess.

FJ: Well, can you tell me more about the scene with Willie Sievers? There was a brief scene in the movie with her on piano, but when you talk about it in the commentary track, it’s an amazing story.

TZ: It’s one of the most amazing stories of my life. The most amazing coincidence I ever had. 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.

Sadly, we didn’t capture the initial meeting of Willie and Howard because the cameraman was putting the film in the camera, but we did get them playing together.

FJ: It’s scary to think about how close it all of this came to being lost forever. Can you imagine if you hadn’t found that one “State Street Rag” record?

TZ: One thing that haunts me is that there was one other record Armstrong and Bogan recorded for Bluebird that has never turned up. One side was a song called “There’s Nothing In This World For Me,” and I think the other side was “I’m Through With You.”  I did film Armstrong and Bogan playing “There’s Nothing In This World For Me,” but I didn’t include it in the original film for reasons so complicated I can’t even get into it now. It would take hours to explain. But I did include it in the deleted scenes on the DVD so you can at least hear it there. And I have no idea what it sounded like in 1934, but I bet it was amazing then. What haunts me is that I asked them to play “I’m Through With You” as well and they said, “Um, how does that go again?”  They couldn’t remember it!

FJ: What about the mandolin Howard was playing?

TZ: He hadn’t had a mandolin in about 10 or 20 years. He was just playing fiddle. But he didn’t have a mandolin, so I said, “I’ll try to find you a mandolin.”  I found that Bruno mandolin in a pawnshop for a couple hundred dollars. It had a pretty good sound—wasn’t a great mandolin, wasn’t a terrible mandolin, and he did okay with it.

I asked him if he needed any practice. In fact, I was encouraging him to practice. I said, “Look, we’re going to be filming in a few days. You haven’t played a mandolin in like 20 years. You really got to practice.” He said, “How long you been playing mandolin?” I said, “I don’t know, about 15 years.”  He said, “I’ve been playing 72 years, I don’t need any practice.” And he probably, in reality, actually did need a little practice, but I wasn’t going to be the guy to tell him.

FJ: Robert Crumb, the subject of your other documentary, drew the art for the movie poster and the DVD cover. Has he seen the restored version of Louie Bluie?

TZ: Yeah, I got a weird phone call from Crumb on my answering machine. He said he watched Louie Bluie again, and that it’s by far my best film. He went on, and on, and on about how Howard Armstrong was a master and so forth. And I started realizing what his other favorite films are. He really has the worst taste in films. So, I’m not sure how to take his praise but what can you do?

[Editor’s Note: Louie Bluie is now available as a DVD through the Criterion Collection. You can order it via Amazon.com here (affiliate link).]