Acclaimed musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong was renowned for a lifetime of jazz, blues, folk and country music. Armstrong’s roots in America’s musical past, his accomplished musicianship, and his sly and charming personality led the National Endowment for the Arts to honor him as a “national treasure.” But when Armstrong met Barbara Ward, a sculptor 30 years his junior, a new chapter of his life and art unfolded.
“Sweet Old Song,” a film by Leah Mahan, is the story of Armstrong and Ward’s courtship and marriage – a unique partnership that inspired an outpouring of art and music. This creative work draws on nearly a century of African American experience, beginning with Armstrong’s vivid stories and paintings of his childhood in a segregated town in Tennessee.
The premiere broadcast of Sweet Old Song on the PBS series “P.O.V.”on July 30, 2002, brought rave reviews – “A delightful documentary” (San Francisco Chronicle), “A soulful duet” (Los Angeles Times), “Excellent” (TV Guide) – and a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement from the Directors Guild of America. Acclaim for the documentary put Howard Armstrong, then 93, back into the spotlight with a concert tour including the Country Music Hall of Fame and honors such as the Folklife Heritage Award from the Governor of Tennessee and nomination for a W.C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation, considered the highest honor in the blues.
Howard Armstrong died on July 30, 2003 of complications from a heart attack. New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote an obituary celebrating Howard’s contributions as “the last guardian of a vanishing African-American tradition of string-band music” who “performed with a virtuoso’s panache, pleasing audiences with fast fingers and a droll stage presence.” In 2004 film critic Roger Ebert selected “Sweet Old Song” for his Overlooked Film Festival, where it joined the work of master filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.
“Sweet Old Song” was given a rare re-broadcast on the “P.O.V.” series in 2003 and is currently part of the “P.O.V.” “True Lives” series, which highlights “classic” films from the series archive. The documentary is also currently part of the Independent Television Service series “True Stories,” which broadcasts independent American films abroad.
In 2009, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and other venues around the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of Howard Armstrong’s birth (March 4, 1909) with screenings of SWEET OLD SONG. The “P.O.V.” series streamed the film on its Web site in March and April that year.
Leah Mahan is an independent documentary filmmaker whose work has been nominated by the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement. She has been a fellow at the Sundance Institute Documentary Editing and Story Lab and the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies. Leah’s film Sweet Old Song (2002) was featured on the PBS series P.O.V. and was selected by film critic Roger Ebert to be screened at his Overlooked Film Festival (“Ebertfest”). The film tells the story of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, an old-time string band musician who undertakes a bittersweet journey with the woman he loves. In 2013 she completed Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, about a group of determined Mississippians who struggle to save their endangered Gulf Coast community in the face of rampant development, industrial pollution and disaster. She worked with Gulf Coast NGOs to develop a related community journalism project titled Bridge the Gulf. Leah began her career as a research assistant for filmmaker Henry Hampton on the groundbreaking PBS series on the civil rights movement Eyes on the Prize. A sequel to her first film, Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street (1996), was completed in 2013. The films tell the story of a vibrant community organization that transforms a devastated Boston neighborhood through grassroots organizing. Leah’s work has been supported by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, Independent Television Service, Ford Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She holds a BA in anthropology from Cornell University and an MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their two children.