Founded 80 years ago, the National Folk Festival was first presented in 1934 in St. Louis, Missouri, and is the nation’s longest-running multicultural celebration of traditional arts and culture. In honor of this milestone, we are featuring a rotating series of live video and audio recordings from 40 years ago that capture highlights of the 36th National Folk Festival in 1974, beginning with the legendary black string band Martin, Bogan and Armstrong.
Here is rarely seen video footage from 1974 of an exuberant Martin, Bogan & Armstrong performing at the 36th National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia, with Carl Martin on guitar and mandolin, Ted Bogan on sock-style rhythm guitar, Howard Armstrong on fiddle and mandolin, and Howard’s son Tom on bass.
This footage appeared as part of a program in the series “In Performance at Wolf Trap,” produced by public television station WETA, and narrated by Andy Wallace, who is heard here introducing the group.
The career of the remarkable African American string band Martin, Bogan & Armstrong spanned nearly 50 years. The three men met in 1930 in Knoxville, Tennessee, then a gathering place for street musicians and string bands. Multi-instrumentalist Carl Martin (1906–1979) was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, but moved to Knoxville as a youngster. Ted Bogan (1910–1990) came from Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he had learned guitar from Pink Anderson and watching other street musicians. Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong (1909–2003) was born in Dayton, Tennessee, but grew up in La Follette. A multi-instrumentalist like Martin, he learned violin and mandolin from his father and brothers, and worked with family bands.
In their prime, the group enjoyed multiple incarnations, first, in the ‘30s, as the Four Keys, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and the Wandering Troubadours. They played individually and collectively throughout the mid-South on the radio, with medicine shows, and at country jukes before eventually making it to Chicago in the late ’30s and ’40s, where they made records but mostly supported themselves by what Armstrong calls “pulling doors.” This meant going into different cafes and taverns and playing for tips if they weren’t thrown out. Playing various ethnic neighborhoods, the group took advantage of Armstrong’s gift with languages and learned to sing in a variety of tongues. Best described as an acoustic string band (violin, guitar, mandolin, bass), the group played blues, jazz, pop, country, and various non-English favorites. As skilled musicians eager to earn tips by playing whatever their audiences wanted, they built up quite a large repertoire.
Having gone their separate ways, the group reunited as Martin, Bogan & the Armstrongs (now with Howard’s son on bass) in the early ’70s and enjoyed substantial blues revival acclaim. After Carl Martin died 1979, Bogan and Armstrong continued on. Bogan and Armstrong were still the greatest living exponents of the African-American string-band style, equally at home playing blues, swing, jazz, ragtime, or older black string band material. Armstrong, the longest-lived of the three, was a notable raconteur and visual artist who spoke seven languages. He was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1990. What made their music so wonderful, besides its energy and flawless presentation, and their personable good humor, was their ability to remind us that good music transcends classifications and a skilled artist can draw from many streams.