Filmmaking | Interviews

Capturing a ‘Sweet Old Song’

1 Jul , 2002  

Written by Amy Souza | Posted by:

Leah Mahan talks about her new documentary premiering on PBS this month.

"I’ve always been on the fence between observing and portraying things," says Leah Mahan, producer and director of the new documentary, "Sweet Old Song."

Mahan began her academic life studying book illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design but transferred to Cornell University to study anthropology. While at Cornell, she found herself drawn to ethnographic films.

"I do see film as some sort of anthropological view at the way people are living, a look at a world outside of my own experience," she says.

At the time, Cornell didn’t have a formal filmmaking program, so Mahan took the one hands-on class offered and as many film criticism classes as she could. Toward the end of her senior year, she saw a rough cut of "Eyes on the Prize." "I was blown away," she says. So, she signed up to do an internship with Blackside Films, and then continued on at the company as a researcher and assistant sound editor.

"That cemented for me my interest in film," Mahan says. "If not for Blackside, maybe I wouldn’t have pursued it. It was an amazing team of journalists and artists, finding a way to make film really matter."

Since her time at Blackside, Mahan has worked to create her own films that matter. In 1996, she co-produced "Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street," about the local residents who saved their Boston neighborhood from decay and revitalized their own community. "That was the first film where I was involved from beginning to end," she says.

In 1997, she began work on "Sweet Old Song." The film is a portrait of music legend, poet, and painter Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, but even more than that, it’s a study of the intergenerational relationship between Armstrong (who is now 91) and Barbara Ward (who is 61).

"To me, the film is really about Barbara’s place in Howard’s life," Mahan says. "Howard is an amazing storyteller, but he’s not as frank about his emotions. Barbara is the lens through which we’re looking at their life."

Mahan met Barbara Ward in Boston in the early 1990s and got to know her work as a fiber artist. At that time, Ward was in a long-distance relationship with Howard Armstrong. Mahan had heard of Armstrong, but didn’t meet him until 1996 when he moved to Boston. It was then that Mahan started thinking seriously about making a documentary about the couple.

In 1996, Armstrong was the subject of another P.O.V documentary called "Louie Bluie" produced by Terry Zwigoff. That film focused on the man and his music. Armstrong’s legend as a musician is also evident in "Sweet Old Song" as we see him travel the country, playing the fiddle and the mandolin, and hear other musicians talk about Armstrong’s influence on them. But the more poignant scenes in the film focus on the bond between Armstrong and Ward.

"I was drawn to this intergenerational relationship that really worked," says Mahan. "And how Barbara’s influence extended Howard’s life and his artistic life."

Mahan began shooting "Sweet Old Song" in 1997, but put the film on the back burner until she received funding for the project in 2000. "The funding came through just in time to go out on the road with them. It was great timing and allowed me to follow them around the country."

Mahan shot most of the film herself using a Mini-DV camera. Many of the concert and jam session scenes were shot on Beta format and used multiple cameras. But the use of a smaller camera and crew lends to the intimacy conveyed on screen during interviews.

"Being on location and capturing things as they unfold is the highlight for me," says Mahan. "This is my first time behind the camera and it added a whole new dimension to the process. Now, when I’m not behind the camera, I’ll have a much better sense of what I want," she adds.

Mahan saw her skills and confidence with the camera grow over time. "I was really surprised and happy with the way the footage looked," she says.

After two and a half years of shooting, Mahan found herself with 200 hours of footage. She put together a two-hour assembly edit and brought it to co-producer and editor Bill Anderson for the final edit. "There were hard decisions to be made, and it was key to have someone else with a mind on the story," she says.

Mahan, who lived in Boston for over 20 years, moved back to her hometown of Oakland, California, in 1999 when her husband took a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. Throughout her career, Mahan has often worked as a "hired gun" on others’ projects, but has focused her time and efforts on "Sweet Old Song" since 2000.

"There’s a lot of reward when working on your own project," she says, "but also it’s very stressful. And there’s no paycheck. So far I’ve gone in cycles, working for other people and on my own projects, and that’s worked."

By the time Mahan received funding for "Sweet Old Song" she had known Barbara Ward for 10 years and Howard Armstrong for five. Having an established relationship with the couple definitely added to the intimacy and honesty of the film, she says. And during the years of production, Mahan’s own relationship with Ward and Armstrong deepened.

"There’s a moment toward the end of the film when they find the grave of Howards’s parents. And he sits on top of the gravestone and plays his mandolin. There’s no way you could script this happening. And I thought how amazing it was to be there at that moment. I felt honored to be there."

‘Sweet Old Song’ will air nationally on July 30th at 10 p.m. as part of the P.O.V. series. The film will air on WGBH (Channel 44) on Monday, August 5th at 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.pbs.org/pov.

A free screening and discussion with Howard Armstrong, Barbara Ward Armstrong and co-producer/editor Bill Anderson will take place on Thursday, August 1 at 7 p.m. at the Great Hall, Codman Square at Talbot & Washington. Contact (617) 822-8205 for information. The event is sponsored by the Codman Square Health Center, the Dorchester Visual Arts Center and Filmmakers Collaborative ‘Film Talks’ Program.

This screening is part of a national outreach campaign funded by the National Black Programming Consortium and the LEF Foundation, which will include screenings and concerts at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and the Knoxville Museum of Art. The ITVS Community Connections Project is organizing additional screenings in Chicago, Philadelphia, Nashville, Washington DC and several other cities.


'Sweet Old Song' will air nationally on July 30th at 10 p.m. as part of the P.O.V. series. The film will air on WGBH (Channel 44) on Monday, August 5th at 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.pbs.org/pov. A free screening and discussion with Howard Armstrong, Barbara Ward Armstrong and co-producer/editor Bill Anderson will take place on Thursday, August 1 at 7 p.m. at the Great Hall, Codman Square at Talbot & Washington. Contact (617) 822-8205 for information. The event is sponsored by the Codman Square Health Center, the Dorchester Visual Arts Center and Filmmakers Collaborative 'Film Talks' Program. This screening is part of a national outreach campaign funded by the National Black Programming Consortium and the LEF Foundation, which will include screenings and concerts at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and the Knoxville Museum of Art. The ITVS Community Connections Project is organizing additional screenings in Chicago, Philadelphia, Nashville, Washington DC and several other cities.