African American String Band Musicians Howard Armstrong (1909-2003) and Ted Bogan (1910-1990)
The one-and-only Howard Armstrong made several memorable appearances at folklife
festivals produced by the Michigan State University Museum, beginning with the 1988
Festival of Michigan Folklife and ending in 2002 with its successor, the Great Lakes
Folk Festival. None were more memorable than when he performed with his long-time friend, guitarist and South Carolina native, Ted Bogan. Armstrong and Bogan
first met during the early 1930s in Armstrong’s home state of Tennessee. With fellow
musician Carl Martin, they joined the Great Migration, ending up in Chicago where they
worked as street musicians, made recordings, and―according to Howard—played for
Al Capone! During this time, they made several trips into Michigan to play at juke joints
and restaurants. Armstrong did not settle in Michigan until after World War II, when
he took an assembly line job in Detroit’s auto industry in order to support his family.
He retired from Chrysler in 1971. The following year, with interest in older forms of
African American music on the rise, Armstrong reunited with his old friends Bogan and
Martin, touring as the “last of the black string bands.” They played throughout the U.S.
and internationally until Martin’s death in 1979. Bogan and Armstrong continued as a
duo until Bogan’s death in 1990. Among the many awards and recognitions Armstrong
received during his long and colorful life were a National Heritage Fellowship from
the National Endowment for the Arts (1990) and a Michigan Heritage Award from the
Michigan State University Museum (1989).
The following video excerpts come from the 1989 Festival of Michigan Folklife and
were filmed by Gary McCuaig. The first shows Howard Armstrong singing an old
hymn learned from his mother, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” while accompanying
himself on fiddle. The performance captures Howard’s inimitable stage personality and
the conflict between church and fiddle (what his mother called the “devil’s box”). The
second excerpt features Bogan and Armstrong playing a blues medley, with the two men
A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.