When it comes to alleviating stress, or at least putting it aside, you can’t beat ritual. Be it the communal and spiritual comfort of weekly mass or the private brain shutdown of a morning shower, there’s nothing quite like curling up with some mild compulsion to cradle us back inward from a jagged, bleary-eyed edge to our soft, creamy centers.
The Carpetbag Theatre ensemble’s ritual is called “check-in,” a pre-rehearsal routine where the actors and crew can kvetch and rant away all their scary, awkward crap before they start their work: taking a short stack of printed pages and translating it into finely tuned musical theater.
It’s a small cast, just 12 actors and musicians and a simple, no-nonsense production. But there are 15 musical numbers representing nearly as many old-timey genres: gospel, bluegrass, blues, Irish folk, and pop standards among others. Add to that the fact this particular play has never been performed before and the word “daunting” doesn’t seem to do it justice.
The play, an ambitious biography of storied East Tennessee fiddler Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong called Between a Ballad and a Blues, opens this week. But in rehearsals just last week, it still needed some work. The songs were ready, the harmonies and accompaniment polished and well-practiced. The acting, though, wasn’t quite there yet, and the actors were still consulting their scripts a lot.
But watching the company obsessively pore over every beat, every vocal inflection over and over again, you had the feeling they’d be ready soon. Nothing that tedious comes without results.
The Carpetbag troupe hadn’t even moved into its “real” theater yet. While the play’s four-day Knoxville run will be staged at the Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre on the University of Tennessee campus before it goes on the road, last week they were still rehearsing in their space in the basement of the Emporium Center on Gay Street. As they got closer to opening night, the Carpetbag’s rehearsals grew more and more intense and longer. What was once a semi-civilized 11 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. day quickly turned into a grueling 11 a.m. to whatever-it-takes physical assault to get the play ready for its debut.
REHEARSAL: “CHECKED IN AND READY TO WORK”
It’s a little over a week before opening night. On the surface, the actors look relaxed, but there’s a palpable air of quiet terror in the room, despite the mood lighting. The tension is made all the more apparent when they get into their check-in formation, sitting in a circle on fold-out chairs in the center of the room.
The three cast members here are Carlton “Starr” Teleford, who plays guitarist Ted Bogan; Clinton Harris, cast as mandolin player Carl Martin; and Bert Tanner, who’s playing Armstrong.
Tanner looks a lot like Armstrong. The two men share the same high cheekbones and curious, intelligent eyes. When Tanner pulls back his dreadlocks and gets in costume, he’s a dead ringer.
There’s also Samuel Thompson, the fiddler in the show. A classically trained violinist, Thompson, formerly of pre-Katrina New Orleans, is used as Armstrong’s secondary voice throughout the play, often appearing onstage behind Tanner and wearing the same costume. Though a seasoned musician, he’s never acted before.“I have an all-new respect for actors,” he says. He’s never had to deal with things like blocking or handling props before, all while sawing away at his instrument.
“It can be a little nerve-wracking sometimes.”
Between a Ballad and a Blues, written by Carpetbag’s artistic director Linda Parris-Bailey, tracks the three musicians through their pre-Depression-era Knoxville beginnings, through the ‘30s playing small rooms across the country as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, on to World War II, then Armstrong’s 22-year self-imposed musical exile in Detroit and finally to the folk music revival of the ‘70s and ‘80s. They are on the small stage together for the bulk of the show, and therefore have to rehearse twice as much as the rest of the cast.
“Checked in, ready to work,” says Teleford, offering a smile but making it clear that he just wants to get on with it.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. today,” says Harris.
“I’m half asleep and half-awake,” Tanner says, excusing himself before unloading a semi-coherent ramble about the ensemble’s stand-up bass and how he feels that it acts as a sort of “nurturing mother” for the production. He also mentions that he was doing some “parking-lot theater,” obsessively reciting his lines out in the parking lot before he came in.
“Poor Bert,” says director Steven Kent later. “He’s talking through the whole show, an hour and a half, and he’s had to go through six or seven revisions. Sometimes it’s harder to unlearn something than to learn something new.”
And as rehearsal gets underway, it’s clear just how much talking Tanner has to do. The play, which spans nearly eight decades, relies heavily on its main subject’s storytelling to drive the narrative forward.
There’s good reason for that.
LOUIE BLUIE: GETTING TO ARMSTRONG’S STORY
Parris-Bailey first heard Armstrong in a radio profile in the late ‘90s. She had always been a fan of string music, and she was amazed at his proficiency. Playing for a broad range of audiences in his early years, he mastered nearly every genre of his day. Parris-Bailey saw in Armstrong a musician who used his skill to cut through racial boundaries, a theme she explores in the show.
“It’s an attempt to have a dialogue about how the exchange and the influence gives us a broader range, gives us a way to communicate outside of boxes and boundaries,” she says. “People don’t understand how close and how closed these ethnic communities are.”
That sort of subject matter seemed right up the Carpetbag’s alley. Founded in 1969, it’s one of the South’s oldest black theater companies. Carpetbag and Parris-Bailey, who’s been an integral part of it since the mid-’70s, are especially interested in doing stories that reveal hidden black history. All the better if the subject matter easily allows for music, says Kent, who says that musical connection is important in dealing with black history, a subject that’s rarely light on the grim.
“I don’t know how black people would have gotten through everything they did without music,” he says.
Maybe that’s why there are so many musicals in the company’s repertoire. There are shows like Swopera, a hip-hop influenced “spoken-word opera” that tells the story of a man trying to save his family’s struggling soul food restaurant; and its signature piece, Dark Cowgirls and Prairie Queens, the gospel music-infused story of four black “cowgirls” in the 19th-century American West, another Parris-Bailey play.
So, when she was inspired to write a story about a trailblazing black musician and a witness to American history like Howard Armstrong, Parris-Bailey knew that it would fit right in.
Armstrong was legendary for his versatility. Though best known as a fiddler, he played 21 other instruments. He was also a gifted painter and poet. And he was a master storyteller. Nearly every song he played live was accompanied by a story nearly twice as long and just as entertaining. Watching him in the 2001 PBS documentary Sweet Old Song, it seems like he rehearsed his verbal artistry as much as he did his violin. There was an almost musical rhythm to his stories: a strategic upward or downward pitch to enhance a well-placed joke every few beats. His tone was a careful balancing act between folksy, cynical, and scholarly. He knew how to be relatable and awe-inspiring at the same.
Armstrong’s gift of gab was essential for covering his early years, where there are huge gaps in original source material for his personal history. So, for a lot of her research, Parris-Bailey went to the man himself, conducting phone interviews with Armstrong from his home in Boston, where he spent the last seven years of his life with his wife Barbara Ward Armstrong.
She knew his basic story. William Howard Taft Armstrong, so named because he was born on March 4, 1909, the day President Taft was inaugurated, grew up in the Furnace Hill section of LaFollette before moving to Knoxville in the mid ‘20s.
It was here that he met “Blind” Roland Martin (a fiddler Armstrong always described as his inspiration, briefly portrayed by Thompson in the play), his younger brother Carl, and later, Bogan. The musicians immersed themselves in Knoxville’s fertile music scene, performing as often as they could at downtown clubs and bars. Then, Armstrong, Martin, and Bogan toured their music around the region and the country, playing whatever they had to wherever they could, until World War II when Armstrong signed up for the civil service. Working as a civil service painter in Hawaii during the war, Armstrong witnessed firsthand the 1941 Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor.
“That was one of the few things he talked about with real sadness,” says Parris-Bailey. “He had a real sadness about war, and I tried to put that into the show.”
In the Pearl Harbor scene, the actors, mimicking the experience of being on a boat during the attack, run frightened back and forth across the stage. Meanwhile, a chorus juxtaposes the chaotic action, singing the Hawaiian novelty pop song, “You Will Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me.”
Post-service, Bogan, Martin, and Armstrong set out to play again, moving to Chicago in 1943. But they found that the advent of the jukebox rendered them obsolete as live musicians. Bogan and Armstrong, determined to continue, stayed in Chicago to record blues while Armstrong moved to Detroit, where he married, had children, and worked on the line for Chrysler for 22 years. Even though his time in Detroit represented a huge chunk of his adult life, Between a Ballad and a Blues gives it only a few minutes.
“He kind of skipped over that part of his life,” says Parris-Bailey. “Howard was passionate about his music, and Detroit wasn’t really about his music.”
Then, in the late ‘60s, the world began to rediscover early folk, blues and bluegrass music, and the Chocolate Drops, now performing as Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, toured the world, playing to sold-out audiences until Martin’s death in 1979. Bogan died in 1990.
In 1983, Armstrong met Barbara Ward, a woman 30 years his junior, though, famously, she thought he was only 50 and he thought she was 25. The two began a correspondence, he from Detroit and she from Boston, until he moved in 1996. They married in 2001 when Armstrong was 92 years old. He died on July 30, 2003 in Boston at the age of 94.
“The guy never slowed down,” says Kent. “He just kind of got to 94 and stopped.”
Before he died, Parris-Bailey was able to track Armstrong down through old friends of his around Knoxville. She called the Armstrongs’ home and spoke to his wife. She asked if she could do an interview, and the couple agreed. She says she was a “clumsy interviewer” when she spoke with him. She couldn’t come up with the right questions to lead her to the story, but Armstrong got her there.
Then she delved into all the other available materials: Sweet Old Song, the 1986 Terry Zwigoff documentary Louie Bluie, and interviews from his last few years.
“I just kind of listened to him as much as I could,” she says, and tried to get his rhythms down. He provided the material.
As she tells it, he was almost too good a subject.
“The problem in writing the dialogue was trying to hear the story, move away from the verbatim and move into dialogue,” she says. “But there’s some phrases from the interviews, they’ve got to be verbatim.”
One such phrase, one that appeared in a story that Armstrong told repeatedly, was “pulling doors,” a performance tactic used by black musicians from the first half of the 20th century.
In the play, the Chocolate Drops introduce “pulling doors” during their stint playing at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. It worked like this: Black musicians would stalk around white ethnic neighborhoods (Italian, Irish, German) until they found the busiest bar. Then, they would pull the door open, jump in and begin playing, praying that the patrons would give them money rather than beat them up. This, she realized, was why musicians from those days had to learn such a large and varied catalogue. They needed to know Irish music, Italian music, mountain music, or whatever else would get a horde of drunk, bigoted white men to momentarily forget their prejudices and open up their wallets.
“Howard knew how to hustle,” Parris-Bailey says.
In Between a Ballad and a Blues, the group plays a version of the folk tune “Ireland Must be Heaven” to satisfy a drunk Irish cop. To hear Tanner, in full-on Howard Armstrong mode, talk about it, “pulling doors” is a kitschy kernel of “music of yesteryear” anecdotery. But, wait, you think, that story is terrifying. These poor guys were risking their lives (or at least their good looks) for a few bucks.
“I think that Howard really focused on positive things in communicating,” she says. “All the stories about being on the road he tells jokingly. We know that that was real risk, and we’re trying to use visual images in the show to contrast the stories with the reality. Otherwise people will just come away with a funny story.”
The reason, says Parris-Bailey, that Howard could joke around about that sort of thing, why his repertoire was so expansive and why he could speak seven languages, was his adaptability—an overriding theme in the play.
Parris-Bailey says she got the inspiration for the title from an interview with Armstrong. She asked him to describe his music, and he said that it was “somewhere between a ballad and a blues.” Track down that somewhere a bit more precisely, and you might find a joke.
“It’s like the way that people think of miracles. Before the miracle happened, it was really bad,” Kent says. “Once safety was gained, Howard had the ability to help people heal through their laughter. Because I think that’s one of the best healers we have: music and laughter.”