The life and legacy of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, LaFollette native, will be honored by the Campbell Culture Coalition this weekend during the county’s 12th annual Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival.
“Howard was not allowed to compete, because he had black skin,” said Jocelyn Griffo, festival co-chair said.
Like many African-American artists during his era, Louie Bluie struggled to be considered an equal when it came to music, especially in LaFollette, Tennessee.
Griffo said that’s when Armstrong made the move to Knoxville.
“Knoxville was a magnet for people who were musicians at that time, and there was no color line. He was rubbing elbows with all kinds of people, all kinds of instruments and music,” Griffo said, which allowed his career to take off and create a musical group with his brother Roland Armstrong, Carl Martin and Ted Bogan. The group was known as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.
There, Louie Bluie’s career began to take international strides towards fame as he began to back musical artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie.
“He spread his wings, here in LaFollete and again in Knoxville, and went on to become a nationally recognized figure,” Griffo said. “Going over to Knoxville and meeting with these people who recognized him for his skill had to be a wonderful experience for him.”
Griffo said if she had to put a label on Howard Armstrong, she would describe him as a role model.
“As a person, he is a role model for all ages, but particularly for children, because he was born at a time and in a place where he had almost no resources to do anything. It was a time of segregation. All of the cards were stacked against him, and you know what? He overcame all of that,” Griffo said.
Described as highly intelligent, in music and art, Armstrong was also proficient in seven different languages, 22 different musical instruments and was an ambidextrous artist.
“From a very early age, here was a man that wasn’t going to let any of that stop him, and that’s why he’s a role model, for even somebody as old as me,” Griffo said. He went on into his nineties and he was still performing everywhere.”
His nickname, “Louie Bluie,” was given to him coincidentally by a young lady in her early twenties, who when he introduced himself as Howard Armstrong, mistook him for someone else.
“She evidently got it confused with Louis Armstrong,” Griffo said. “‘No you’re just plain old Louie Bluie,’” the girl said and blew champagne all over him,” Griffo recalled. “As he was wiping the champagne out of his eyes, he said, ‘Well you know, I kind of like that name’ and so he adapted that as his stage name from that point on.”
Griffo said this incident was also a testament to his sense of humor, and how no one’s negative words could put him down.
Griffo and her team at the Campbell Culture Coalition are honoring Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong this Saturday, Sept. 29 during their 12th Annual Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival, this weekend at the Cove Lake State Park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Manuel Mesa, executive manager at the festival said the team incorporates both music and art, as a part of the festival, because it embodies who Howard Armstrong really was.
“When the music didn’t pay, the art did,” Griffo said as she highlighted how important art was to Armstrong, as he often painted portraits and sold them to keep up his life.
“It’s the art that really is so instrumental to the whole festival that draws so many people from the whole region,” Mesa said. That’s what Howard was able to bring to not only himself and his family.”
Mesa said they highlight the art by having stations during the festival to allow visitors to participate in creating their own art and honoring Howard Armstrong.
“That’s why I love the children’s art space so much because it embodies Howard’s legacy so well,” Mesa said.
The Campbell Culture Coalition encourages all to come out to the festival on Saturday to learn more about Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong’s life and legacy.