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Happy Town

Howard Armstrong remembers old East Knoxville

by Jack Neely

There he is, in the 1930 Knoxville City Directory: Armstrong, Howard (c) musician rms 1016 Yeager Ave. The c, of course, was for "colored," a distinction marketers saw as important, 70 years ago. Yeager Avenue was a now long-since-vanished lane in East Knoxville, not far from the river. The house was one shared by the family of Carl Martin, who's also listed in the same volume as a "musician."

Historians are lucky when they can find listings like these. Few musicians in the 1920s and '30s got listed as "musicians"; many lived such itinerant lives that they didn't get listed at all. They came out of nowhere, had a few brilliant years, sometimes changed music history. Then, often, they vanished.

Howard Armstrong is different from his contemporaries. One big difference is that he'll be playing this weekend, at the Laurel Theatre.

When we chatted with Armstrong about four months ago, just before his brief appearance at the unveiling of the Old City Music Mural, we didn't know the 91-year-old fiddler and mandolinist might be back for an actual concert this year. But here he is, and it seemed a good excuse to talk to him again, which is a treat.

Howard Armstrong doesn't remember the last time he played in Knoxville. Some recall him playing at the World's Fair, and that seems to ring a bell, but he's just not sure. His companion, Barbara, is certain that he hasn't played in Knoxville in the 17 years she has known him.

In that time, Armstrong's reputation has grown, thanks to more recordings (mostly on the Flying Fish label) and concert appearances, and to Terry Zwigoff's biographical documentary, Louie Bluie, which aired on PBS in the '80s, earned national praise and spawned a soundtrack. Today, Armstrong is the only surviving member of the incomparable trio Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, which formed in Knoxville before 1930 but became more famous in the '70s with a series of festival appearances and a new recording, That Old Gang of Mine (now on CD, also on Flying Fish). It's a sampler of the sort of jazz, pop, and country they were playing on street corners in Knoxville before most people had radios.

Armstrong was born in Dayton, Tennessee, but grew up in hilly LaFollette, which he considers his hometown. Son of a fiddler who worked at a blast furnace, he grew up playing with the Armstrong family.

He cut loose and moved to Knoxville when he was 14, which would have been around 1923—before Cas Walker moved to town. Armstrong was in and out of town even earlier than that. He says he was around during the race riot of 1919, when a murder and a frustrated lynch mob inflamed the downtown area for a long late-summer weekend. "I was there when these fools started something that was very, very foolish." He says it blew over quickly. "They weren't as angry at each other as they pretended to be, and I was glad of it."

The riot, he says, was an aberration. "Knoxville was a kind of happy town," he says. "It was pretty lively. There were street bands, street musicians everywhere you turn, every corner. Musicians didn't mind playing the streets. Of course, many of them were crippled or blind." He rattles off names of several: Henry Reddy, Dave McDade, Fred McDade. "Francis Young, he had cataracts on his eyes, played harmonica." He talks about his old friends familiarly, almost as if he expects to find them waiting for him here.

"We got more attention than most of them," he says. "It was because we played a greater variety of music. Most only played a certain type of music: blues, ragtime, whatever. We mixed it all up."

He doesn't remember ever crossing into the Fort Sanders area, where his Laurel Theatre performance will be; in the '20s, it was an upscale, overwhelmingly white neighborhood. The Knoxville he remembers is the mostly black one, east of State Street.

He linked up with the Martins, who lived in East Knoxville. Carl Martin, a bassist and guitarist who would later be a significant figure on the Chicago blues scene of the '30s, was close to Armstrong's age. His much-older brother "Blind Roland" Martin was a fiddler who'd been making a living as a musician since the turn of the century. And Roland and Carl's father, "Fiddlin' Frank" Martin, was an aging musician who had made a living at it back in the Gay '90s and even before that. "He quit fooling around with the fiddle and turned it over to us, so to speak," Armstrong says. He doesn't remember that era, but he talks about the "Gay '90s" casually, as if he does.

Living in East Knoxville in the '20s, Armstrong knew the Delaney brothers, the accomplished East Knoxville artists who were just a little older than he was. He knew Leola Manning, the bluesy gospel singer recently rediscovered by contemporary musicians. "She was very religious," he says. "But she could whale a piano. Pick a piano, beat on it, stomp it," he pauses and offers a translation for the inhibited: "She was pretty adept at playing."

He remembers performers like Mama Callie Jett and her piano-playing son that they called Blue Chord. She was a local blues star and sang at the Gem, the movie theater on Vine that drew big acts. He recalls another pianist called Henderson: "He was an exhibitionist kind of musician," Armstrong says. "You know 'Tiger Rag?' He'd play the ivories, play the melody, then make the tiger roar by rubbing his elbow across the keys." He laughs to remember it. "That was mighty fine fixin's."

He remembers Henry Keaton, the oldest barber in Knoxville, born before the Civil War. "He was in his 70s or 80s, still chopping hair and shaving whiskers." Armstrong played at Keaton's Central Avenue shop on occasion. "I played at barber shops, shoeshine shops, pawn shops, anywhere you could pass the hat and make a few nickels. A little house-rent money, you know." The Jewish community, centered around Vine Street, often invited him to play for special occasions; he learned traditional Hebrew songs to accommodate them.

Armstrong also painted signs and murals for a living. One of his proudest efforts was on the interior of an East Knoxville church, a depiction of St. John's baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, and another of the Ascension. Like most of Vine Street, it was in a part of town that has long since been razed.

He says he knew the black street musicians much better than the white ones, but he does recall Hugh Cross, the seminal country recording artist who was playing around Knoxville in the '20s. Armstrong didn't know Roy Acuff but heard his work with the Smoky Mountain Boys. Describing early country, Armstrong sounds charitable. "There's all kinds of fiddling, you know what I mean," he says. "Some of them played well, I thought."

Of bluegrass, he says, "I think it's a part of American life, if they play it well. I enjoy it. It's just not what I adhere to."

Some of his music sounds country, but most of it has more flavors of the city in it. "'Knox County Stomp' was one of our main featured songs," Armstrong recalls. "It was an upkick blues, like a fast blues. It's really an excerpt from an old blues that comes out of the Gay '90s, called the 'Railroad Blues.'" It was one of their first recordings, cut at the old St. James Hotel in 1930, the same year of their first radio broadcast, on WROL. Armstrong left town for Chicago and points beyond not long after that. Knoxville hasn't been quite as lively since; maybe this weekend will help us remember.

October 12, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 41
© 2000 Metro Pulse