The house on Dunn Street is one of several homes where the Carmichael family lived during Hoagy’s childhood. Born in Bloomington on November 22, 1899, Howard Hoagland was the first child and only son of Howard Clyde (“Cyclone”) and Mary Lida Robison Carmichael. Three girls were to follow. The youngest of them, Joanne, died when she was three, much to her brother’s distress. He blamed her death on the family’s poverty and wrote on the back of a photo of her that her loss made him vow, “I would never be broke again in my lifetime.”
Cyclone Carmichael held a number of jobs, none of which seemed to last long or pay well. He periodically uprooted the family in pursuit of better opportunities. In 1904 they moved to Indianapolis but were back in Bloomington two years later. A more dramatic move came in 1910 when Cyclone transported the family to Missoula, Montana. It was a vast, cold, and sparsely populated area that ten-year-old Hoagy found bleak and forbidding. As his eldest son Hoagy Bix later recounted, however, the boy discovered that Black musicians played hot ragtime on pianos in local brothels. Hoagy would steal there to listen to them, without his mother’s knowledge. By spring 1911, much to Hoagy’s relief, his father’s Montana dream had ended. The family was back in Bloomington, first at the Dunn Street house again and then at 325 South Fess Avenue, just two blocks away.
Hoagy’s mother Lida was a skilled pianist. She supplemented the family income by playing at silent movie theaters as well as fraternity and sorority parties on the IU campus, frequently accompanied by her son. Hoagy didn’t reveal a special interest in music, however, until he was eleven years old. He claims he became fascinated with the song “Little Boy Blue” and asked his mother to teach him to sing it. She later taught him to play the piano as well. Their mutual love of music became a lifelong bond between Hoagy and Lida.
In 1916 Cyclone Carmichael once again moved the family to Indianapolis. This disrupted the social and musical life Hoagy, now in high school, had begun to enjoy. He dropped out of Manual High School in Indianapolis when he was sixteen. He then worked a series of jobs on a construction crew, assembly line, and, most grimly, in a slaughterhouse. In early 1919, at the age of eighteen, Hoagy returned to Bloomington. He lived with his Robison grandparents at 907 Atwater St., and re-entered high school, from which he finally graduated in 1920.