Only violinist, storyteller, and philosopher Howard Armstrong remains to tell of the exploits of this remarkable African-American string band. Virginia-born guitar and mandolin blues artist Carl Martin died in 1979, and guitarist Ted Bogan passed away in the early '80s. But in their prime, Martin, Bogan & the Armstrongs 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 in the early '70s and enjoyed substantial blues revival acclaim. After Carl Martin died, 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, who speaks seven languages and is a painter and a sculptor, was a National Heritage Award winner 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.