Leah Mahan Productions

Roger Ebert’s Review of SWEET OLD SONG

Written for Roger Ebert’s 2004 Overlooked Film Festival (“Ebertfest”), where SWEET OLD SONG joined the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

How rare it is for the same person, however extraordinary, to become the subject of two documentaries made some 20 years apart. And how remarkable to see that their subject, Howard Armstrong, changed so little in the years between his 70s and his 90s.

As I wrote in my 1985 review of “Louie Bluie,” I came to love the music and the spirit of Armstrong on those Monday nights in the 1970s when Martin, Bogan and the Armstrongs performed at the Earl of Old Town in Chicago. I was fascinated by Armstrong: What exactly was he up to? He was a consummate musician, a satirist, a kidder, a clown, a man whose affection for his music and his fellow musicians enveloped every performance. He was a man above all of infinite curiosity, who had somehow survived the cruel conditions of racism in his youth by simply forging ahead with what he loved to do, and allowing its joy to feed his spirit.

It was not until “Louie Bluie” that I learned Armstrong also painted and drew, and not until “Sweet Old Song” that I learned what a remarkable, original artist he was. One of the gifts of the second film is the way it shows him recreating the life and family of his wife, Barbara Ward, through his drawings and paintings of her memories.

We learn in the film that when Barbara and Howard first met, neither had a good idea of how old the other really was. Not that it mattered. The life force they shared was obviously the whole point. Although Armstrong seemed ageless, time has a way of passing, and it was a blessing that through Barbara he was able to continue his art and music, his traveling and storytelling, and especially his teaching, during years when he might have been in storage in a retirement home.

One of the lessons of the film is that age need not define the length of a career. Graced with health and with art that he loved, Armstrong continued strong until the end, as we see in a remarkable film that shows him visiting festivals and workshops, giving concerts, teaching classes, hailed everywhere as the last of a legendary generation. As ebullient and strong as he was, he could not have continued that way without Barbara Ward, and she is honest and moving in the way she talks about her worries and concerns, her questions about a man of his age living such an active life.

I first heard about “Sweet Old Song” from my wife, Chaz, who said she had seen a PBS documentary about an old African-American musician who was so incredible I should show the film at the Overlooked. When she told me his name was Howard Armstrong, I shouted: Howard Armstrong! I know exactly who he is! I told her the story of the Earl of Old Town, and I was astonished to discover he was still alive and active 30 years after I first heard him. I knew of course that “Sweet Old Song” should be preceded by “Louie Bluie,” so the audience could appreciate the persistence of his life force over the years.

We hoped of course to have Howard and Barbara with us on the stage of the Virginia, but in the summer of 2003 I opened up the New York Times and learned that he had died. We are so pleased that Barbara Ward and other musicians who worked with Howard will join us to play some of the music he made and loved.

Roger Ebert