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Between a Ballad and a Blues tells the story of Howard Armstrong’s life

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By Charlotte Underwood

charlotte@lafollettepress.com  

Audience members both young and old attended the Carpetbag Theatre‘s play honoring LaFollette music legend Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong.

Sponsored by the Campbell Culture Coalition (CCC), the play premiered in Campbell County March 13 at LaFollette Middle School.

Theatergoers were treated to a down home personal setting and atmosphere. The stage was set as if the audience were actually part of the play attending a music workshop, much like the shops that Armstrong taught later in his life.

“I think people not only enjoyed the play and music, but seeing how life really was for musicians back then,” said Campbell County Museum Curator Jerry Sharp.

The play covered Armstrong’s life as a musician with his two traveling and playing partners Carl Martin, played by Horace E. Smith, III, and Ted Bogan played by Carlton “Starr” Releford. It also captured the life of a string band musician battling the ever-present racial issues of the time.

“Performing the play here in Howard’s hometown feels like it’s come full circle.  It feels like it has a deeper purpose,” said Releford.

Spanning Armstrong’s seven-decade music career, the play portrayed the journeys of a lifetime.  Traveling from the 1920’s to Armstrong’s death in 2003, Between a Ballad and a Blues brought history to life.  

“I’ve loved being in LaFollette and performing here in Howard’s hometown.  I’ve felt Howard’s energy around me all day,” said Bert Tanner, who portrays Armstrong in the play.

Playwright Linda Parris-Bailey knew she wanted to write a play about Armstrong’s life in 1978 when she heard an interview of Armstrong, Martin and Bogan.

“It was one of the last interviews that they did and the story was so compelling that I couldn’t resist it,” said Parris-Baily.

It took her several years to write and plan the project.

“I fell in love with Howard a long time ago and it’s been one wild ride,” said Parris-Bailey.

“It’s really reclaiming the music and giving people information and stories about people who not only survived, but made for themselves a creative life.  The creative spirit leads you to answers,” said Parris-Bailey.

The play is ultimately about the legacy of the music.

“It’s about leaving the music with someone who will care for it.  That’s why people like live music; cause the music isn’t dead,” said Tanner, portraying Armstrong.