My proudest musical memory is the five years I played guitar for Howard Armstrong. I’d heard Howard’s old records as Louie Bluie and his later ones with Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong; I’d seen Terry Zwigoff’s film about him; and I’d learned some of Carl Martin‘s songs… but I ended up working with him by pure happenstance. Bruce “Utah” Phillips happened to be staying at my place in Cambridge sometime around 1988, and the “Masters of the Folk Violin” tour was touching down somewhere in the area, with Howard, Michael Doucet, a teenage Alison Krauss, and two or three other players.
Joe Wilson, the tour organizer, invited Bruce to the show and dinner with the crew, I went along, and Bruce wanted to sit next to Howard. So we went over and introduced ourselves, and the lady with Howard got great big eyes and said, “Elijah Wald?! Ruth and George’s son!? I know you!”
She was Barbara Ward, who had worked for many years at the Harvard Biological Laboratories and been married to a young biologist who was a student of my father’s. She also had been involved with my parents in the defense committee for the father of Jhugh Price, a student at my high school who was shot in an ugly racial incident in North Cambridge, where he and his father stood up to a gang of white toughs in front of their house, Jhugh was killed, and his father was charged with the killing… (Yes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Don’t tell black Bostonians how liberal that area is.)
A few months later I ran into Howard and Barbara in Boston Common and they mentioned he was looking for a local guitarist and bass player. I suggested myself and Washtub Robbie Phillips, and Howard was skeptical about using a one-string bass… but we went over to Barbara’s and he and Robbie hit it off immediately, both musically and socially.
I didn’t know the swing repertoire, but I was willing to take orders — like, when Howard told me to play an augmented chord in the bridge to “Lady Be Good,” I asked him how and he showed me. He was patient, I was eager, and it worked fine. We mostly just backed him on gigs around New England — the money was rarely good enough to take a full group further afield — but we also traveled to the Chicago Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which I’d never have played any other way.
As anyone knows who has seen the two movies about him, Howard was a brilliant, funny, and supremely varied character and a terrific musician. We mostly played pop standards, with the occasional blues, hoedown, or gospel number, his comical reworking of “La Cucaracha,” a self-penned Hawaiian dialect number called “You’ll Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me” (he was in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked), and his ridiculously fast version of “John Henry,” always introduced with an admonishment to the band: “Watch out now — cause if you can’t keep up, you sure can’t catch up!”
And, of course, we played “Barnyard Dance,” the title song from the first Martin, Bogan and Armstrong album. As far as I know, this was another of Howard’s compositions, as was the album cover — which prompted me to ask him if he would paint a cover for the CD I recorded near the end of my time with him, which he graciously did.
I am still absorbing lessons I learned from Howard, musical and otherwise — far too many to detail here, but I’ll finish by testifying that I could never have written “Escaping the Delta” without the insights I got from those years with him… which is another way of saying I have no idea what I’d be doing today if that string of coincidences hadn’t brought us together.