Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Louie Bluie” (Criterion Collection)

Louie Bluie was a pseudonym used on a rare African-American string band 78 in 1934, a duet credited to “Louie Bluie and Ted Bogan” Decades later, the record fascinated Terry Zwigoff, a member of the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a somewhat eccentric string band led by underground comix hero R. Crumb. Indeed, it fascinated Zwigoff to such an extent that it altered the artistic direction of his life.

Zwigoff was determined to find out all he could about the elusive Louie Bluie, not realizing that the name hid the identity of fiddler/mandolinist Howard Armstrong, who had become something of a sensation in folk music circles during the 1970’s, again in the company of the very same guitarist, Ted Bogan, along with another veteran, Carl Martin, under the group name Martin, Bogan and Armstrong. Once he found Armstrong, he fortunately was able to convince him that he should make a documentary film about his life, focusing on the music he was still making in his 70’s. Bogan is featured in the film as well, but alas, Carl Martin had passed away in 1979, before Zwigoff entered the scene. During their 1970’s heyday, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong were considered the last of the old-time black string bands. Of course, since the film’s release in 1985, there has been a gratifying revival of interest in string band music among a handful of African-American musicians, most notably the Carolina Chocolate Drops (whom I would speculate took their name as an homage to a late 20’s band that featured Armstrong and Martin, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops).

Zwigoff convinced another legendary black mandolinist, Yank Rachell, to join Armstrong and Bogan for the film, but the three of them never quite click. Armstrong and Rachell may have both been born in Tennessee (Bogan was from South Carolina), but Armstrong’s deep roots in old-time country music and his penchant for applying these origins to old jazz and pop tunes doesn’t gel with Rachell’s Memphis-oriented blues style. Fortunately, Rachell pretty much stays in the background, aside from one solid blues number late in the film. Far more successful is the combination of Armstrong and Bogan with another guest invited by Zwigoff, Banjo Ikey Robinson, a sensational four-string banjo wizard popular on the Chicago scene during the 1920’s. The music these three masters make sounds as if they’d been playing together for years, even when they are merely jamming. The final member of this talented crew is Howard Armstrong’s son, Tom, on stand-up bass.

We get to know the off-stage personalities of these youthful old-timers as well. Armstrong may insult Bogan incessantly at the beginning of the film, but the latter merely smiles shyly, no doubt because he knows Armstrong is just razzing him. Armstrong actually seems to be a quiet, humble sort of guy for most of the film. Thus, it seems a bit jarring to learn that Armstrong was something of a pornographer in his sideline avocation as a graphic artist. He shows the camera a large book of his original artwork and writings that he assembled over the years, keeping it hidden away from the public, until he showed a few pictures here. Let’s just say there are certain, fairly short segments of the film you don’t want your kids to see. Not all of his art is salacious, by any means, and those drawings that are would appear to be based on folklore rather than hard-core. There is also a brief glimpse of his less racy pictures, which look surprisingly like very colorful, often elaborate folk-art equivalents of R. Crumb’s cartoons.

There is some fascinating interview material as well as a bit of a travelog, as Armstrong goes back to LaFollette, Tennessee to re-visit his old stomping grounds, finding some of his old acquaintances still alive and making music. Armstrong talks about how the black string bands would play country hoedowns every bit as much as white bands, but that the white musicians often refused to let black fiddlers play alongside them, even if they were better. Even so, Armstrong often played for white audiences at political rallies, excursions, etc. However, the white audiences didn’t care for blues, so he expanded his repertoire to include pop songs of the day. Thus we find over a half-century later, one of the most memorable performances in the film is a string-band version of the Bing Crosby standard, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”. First in Tennessee, and later, after arriving in Chicago in the 1930’s, Armstrong and Bogan also found they could earn a fair sum of money playing Polish, Italian, and other ethnic musics for European immigrants. They play a pretty mean polka in the film as well.

Sadly, most of the key participants in this film are now gone. Ted Bogan and Ikey Robinson both died in 1990, aged 79 and 86, respectively. Yank Rachell lived to be 87, passing from the scene in 1997. Howard Armstrong carried on as a solo artist for several years after the film was made, and was even the subject of a second documentary, “Sweet Old Song”. He died at age 94 in 2003.

Several years after making this film, Zwigoff directed the well-known documentary “Crumb”, and more recently helmed the plot-based films, “Ghost World” (which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay) and “Bad Santa”. His film career has been somewhat inconsistent, but often rewarding artistically. 25 years after its initial release, “Louie Bluie” still holds up as one of the most delightfully entertaining music documentaries I’ve seen in quite a while.

The hour-long film is supplemented by an informative director’s commentary, a large chunk of unused footage, as well as some fine pictorial matter. Get this one.