William Howard Taft Armstrong was born in Dayton, Tennessee, and grew up in LaFollette, Tennessee. As a young teenager he taught himself to play the Fiddle and joined a band led by Blind Roland Martin and his brother Carl Martin. They toured the United States performing a wide range of music, from work songs and spirituals through popular Tin Pan Alley tunes and foreign-language songs. Armstrong, his brother Roland Armstrong, and Carl Martin, billed as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, recorded for Vocalion Records at the St. James Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 3, 1930. Adding guitarist Ted Bogan, the band toured as part of a medicine show and backed blues musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. As Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, they also performed at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. In 1934 Armstrong and Bogan recorded "State Street Rag" and "Ted's Stomp" for Bluebird Records, with Armstrong using the stage name Louie Bluie, which had been given to him by a fan.
Armstrong's early recordings are country rags or blues, but this was not his sole repertoire as a performer. According to his sometime accompanist, the writer Elijah Wald, his early theme song was the Gershwin standard "Lady Be Good", and his group's repertoire included a wide range of hit songs of the period, including Italian, Polish, Mexican and country songs, which he would play to meet the varying demands of his audience.
After serving in World War II, Armstrong moved to Detroit and worked in the auto industry until 1971. With a revival of interest in old-time African-American music, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong reunited. The band recorded, performed at clubs and festivals and went on a tour of South America sponsored by the U.S. State Department. They played together until Martin's death in 1979.
Around this time, both Armstrong and Bogan were contacted by the filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, a fan of their recording "State Street Rag". Zwigoff's interest in Armstrong eventually blossomed into a one-hour documentary, Louie Bluie, released in 1985. He was the subject of the 2002 documentary Sweet Old Song.
He continued to perform with a younger generation of musicians and released his first solo album, Louie Bluie, in collaboration with Ralphe Armstrong and Ray Kamalay in 1995. The album earned him a W.C. Handy Blues Award.
Armstrong was also an expert painter, designing album covers for his group and occasionally for other artists, including Wald. He also made necklaces from beads, pipe cleaners and found objects. He spoke several languages.
He died in Boston, Massachusetts, aged 94, following a heart attack.
The Louie Bluie Festival, held each year at Cove Lake State Park near Armstrong's childhood home of LaFollette, celebrates his music and legacy.Louie Bluie (album) (Blue Suit Records, 1995)Louie Bluie (1985), directed by Terry ZwigoffSweet Old Song (2002), directed by Leah Mahan1996 – W.C. Handy Blues Award for Acoustic Album: Howard Armstrong, Ralphe Armstrong, & Ray Kamalay – Louie Bluie2000 – W.C. Handy Blues Award for Blues Instrumentalist - Other (Violin)2003 – W.C. Handy Blues Award for Blues Instrumentalist - Other (mandolin)