Field-work. When one is acting as a folklorist “in the field”, there are many folks one meets along the way who give you a hand with greater or lesser amounts of “data” regarding whatever it is you are trying to examine. These include individuals directly involved in that which one is examining, but also includes other community members and even some from outside the community, including some at archives of various sorts. Those people might be considered “sources” for the purpose of labeling their contribution to one’s activities. A smaller group of that nature who are major sources of information can be labeled “informants”, people that one goes back to repeatedly over time. This happens with some frequency, but is still reasonably rare – such people are cherished, often shared, by most field workers while some are heavily guarded by others for a variety of reasons. Even more rare is when an individual goes beyond being an “informant” and actually becomes a friend. This is the most difficult and rare transition possibility because of the often large cultural and/or age differences involved, but when it does happen, it’s wonderful! Such people are informative, yes, and often take the reins from you in assisting your endeavors off their own bat, producing many a lead that one would not have found alone. What a luxury, and what a great state-of-affairs – friend-making in life at best is a fraught effort, and finding one who is interested and believes in what you are up to is golden.
Real friendship happened for me in only a few instances during my decade of active field research in the Southeast in the 1970s. Baby Tate (O&S 11) was one such, the first that Bruce Bastin and I got close to not just in a professional (i.e. – for us, musically focused) fashion beginning in 1970. We spent much time just hanging out with him, and he located a number of area musicians we would never have known without him. Tate even came up to my place to perform at the big Spring Weekend festival in May of 1972 at the college (UK: university) at which I then taught biology. Staying in my apartment the Friday night, he performed the next afternoon on the outdoor stage. He was well received (I have the tapes to prove it!), playing by himself, or with Larry Johnson, who I also got on the bill (along with Eddie Kirkland plus a local band), as second. Larry was blown away meeting someone who actually KNEW the magnificent Willie Walker (thanks, Nick!!)! He said then in his excitement that he’d go South with me that summer and record with Tate; didn’t happen… I should have taken them both back to my place and recorded them together then and there. My mistake – Tate went up later that day with Kip Lornell for an evening coffee house gig near Albany, NY. He then took the Greyhound back home to SC after all that, and Bruce and I stopped in on him that summer as were heading down to Macon, GA, planning on recording him when we returned North. Unfortunately, Tate died before we got back to Spartanburg and his death pushed me (and probably Bruce) into subsequent long-term feverish activity – me on the road for a decade, and he at Chapel Hill for ’72/’73. The Lord, she works in mysterious ways. It was a lovely two years while they lasted.
Another friend I acquired in 1970 was Willie Trice (O&S #9) – that relationship took on an almost mystical state of connection in that Willie always seemed to anticipate when I would be coming by to see him, even after some time away and me not calling ahead. He’d dream of me that night and would be patiently waiting for “Mr. Pete” when I arrived – I am fully convinced that he even stayed alive to see me one more time in my travels before he died in 1977 (see notes in CD reissue of his LP). I have already alluded to Eddie Kirkland (O&S 49, 50, 51)… seeing him in Melbourne a few years back was a treat for us both. He used to base himself out of my house in his summer tours in the 70s/80s of the Northeast, staying either in my spare room or his station wagon. Some other folks partially straddled the borderline: Robert Lockwood (O&S 39, 40), Homesick James (O&S 26), Honeyboy Edwards (O&S 25). I stayed at Robert’s house in Cleveland a few times, and Homesick traveled with me to his home-town in TN as I was en route to GA one year. And then there was Tarheel Slim.
I cannot remember at the moment how I was steered in the right direction to find Slim – maybe it was Bobby Robinson who gave me a phone number, or I simply looked him up in the Bronx telephone directory. Whatever – it was the start of a serious friendship lasting from 1970 until his death in 1977. I do know that I initially went to his quite large apartment in the South Bronx, a lovely flat with beautiful parquet floors, ceiling rosettes and plaster moldings, all from another era of gentility. He shared it with his partner (singing, and otherwise), Ann Sanford – I do not think that she was there the first time I went, or she stayed well in the background if she was there. That area of the Bronx was somewhat dicey, but fools rush in, if with some trepidation – I wonder if the building is still standing?
This was in the summer of 1970 – it was hot and Slim had his shirt off and a fan running at our first meeting – right after I had finished my second summer’s “run” through the SE with Bastin. He was very amenable to talking about his musical career, and was still capable of playing and singing with authority (although I was not to know that until later in that autumn). Unfortunately, I did not take the time to speak with Ann, a glaring error on my part… cannot always get it right or do it all in the rush of the moment. One of my trips there included Valerie Wilmer, who was visiting me: she wrote about me and the record label, and then about Slim (as well as, separately, Little Sam Davis) for Melody Maker, pieces which included some of her legendary photographs!
After a different visit to the South Bronx, I talked with Slim on the phone a day or two later. He told me about the little neighbor boy who came up to him after I had left, saying excitedly, “Uncle Bunn, Uncle Bunn… I just saw Jesus comin’ out of yo’ ’partment!” Not the last time in my life I’ve passed for Jewish, but that’s the only time I’ve been taken for a messiah –in those days I looked just like the pictures from his Bible classes, though. White guy with long hair and beard – you just cannot make that sort of thing up! Actually, I was frequently mistaken for George Carlin in those days – another White guy with long hair and beard. One day when working at Atlantic, I was walking down the hallways and bumped into Carlin in the flesh. I looked at him, and said, “You know, you look a lot like me” and kept on walking, leaving him standing there dumbfounded. One of the few times in my life that I thought of a good quip immediately, and let it out a.s.a.p. Usually, it’s many hours later that I think of what to say, and seldom does it actually get done. One of those rare days when it all works according to someone’s plan, rather than a delayed reaction!
After our initial meeting, I spoke with Slim on the phone a few times, visited a few more and arranged to pick him up one afternoon to bring him to my parents’ place in NJ to record. We had a finished basement by then, used as a playroom by my younger sisters – it was pretty good sound-wise, too. I picked him up in the Bronx and off we drove to Montclair. Slim met my mother, who was favorably taken by him, much to my great relief (always wondered how she would have reacted to Eddie)! He recorded four tunes that day in late November and demonstrated his continuing ability and an interest in “doing” older-styled material. It was also an opportunity for my youngest sister to exercise her nascent photographic muscles, something that she also did later that year. We went South to see both Eddie Kirkland, and Baby Tate after Xmas, carrying a borrowed National from my former elementary school classmate, the now late Eric (Carl) Blackstead. I met up with him by chance at Atlantic Records (O&S 15) while working on the fabled “Blues Originals’ series of LPs – he was working on the Woodstock Festival albums. Eric/Carl was left-handed, so I had to re-string it first… this was before I had obtained a National of my own!
There were two more sessions at my parents’ home in January and April of 1971, producing a total of thirteen good sides… this was turning into an interesting thing to do! One more solo session was done in Brooklyn early in 1972 (to be a busy year for me!) at the house of a former student of mine (Joan Kolikow) who was interested in what I was doing and whose parents were to be away for the weekend. I trucked on down (literally, by then) with my equipment, and also brought along Dan DelSanto (O&S 53) and his first wife, Christine. Slim made his way by car and he put down four songs, one with Dan as second guitar (“Superstitious”). That was the last solo session per se that Slim did for me. There were to be more involved recordings a few years later at my new house in Ulster County, NY that filled out my holdings on Slim so that a fine LP was possible – I’ll pick up on them in a bit here. During those years, I also worked for/with Atlantic Records without getting paid (as one does in such circumstances). BUT, I did get a personal letter of promise typed and signed by Ahmet Ertegun indicating that I could record Tarheel Slim and a band in one of their small studios gratis. He remembered positively that Slim and Ann had recorded for Atco back in the day and was supportive of my efforts: I thought that a good exchange.
Slim was one of many recorded by me at the famous 1973 blues festival at Chapel Hill, NC, both solo and with a rhythm section: He went over very well. It was his first time back in “South America” since he left NC with The Selah Jubilee Singers in the forties – he stayed with an old girl friend from his past (“the first cherry I ever had”). It was not until 1974 that we got together at my “home/studio” in Cottekill, NY. He recorded a few solo pieces and also overdubbed himself playing piano, harmonica, and electric guitar over his acoustic guitar and vocal on some others. A few days later he returned, having been told by me that Big Chief Ellis (O&S 19) was there – Chief had come to Peg Leg Bates’ Country Club with his wife, Moot, on a church trip to the resort. It rained the whole weekend and he became bored; just the reason I had recently purchased a Steinway upright piano! Chief came over on the Saturday and recorded by himself – I called Slim to tell him of this and he volunteered to come up the next day (on the bus) to see and play with Chief. They did and it was good! Each led a couple of numbers while backing the other… it had been many years since they had seen and played together, but they slotted in like it had been no time at all since their Apollo Records dates.
Tarheel Slim later came up to my place to rehearse with some musicians I knew in order to play a couple of local gigs – he was interested in getting back into music on some level or another. Driving a school bus was not so fulfilling spiritually! As a sign of the times, each musician had a cassette player and they each recorded the rehearsal to practice with and be ready with the repertoire the following weekend! One other high point for Slim was the Philadelphia Folk Festival of 1974 – I got him, Chief, and Peg Leg Sam onto the billing; they ended up playing together as a trio (rather than three solo sets) in the afternoon after Leon Redbone overran his set time. And there was not much time for a scheduled panel discussion afterwards (thanks Leon) that included Edith Wilson and I. But it was good, and I trust that the festival folks still have tape of that set as proof of what turned out to be a nice little band. He had the goods.
Sadly, Slim died in April of 1977. Throat cancer was the verdict, the bounty of cigarettes – he had the usual treatments for it, but things were too far gone to turn it around by the time he was diagnosed. I last saw him at a small folk festival in northern NJ that photographer Anton Mikofsky had gotten him into. After his treatments his voice was understandably weak, but his playing strong. I had earlier loaned him my small boom-box and a cassette of Aretha Franklin’s gospel church recordings on Atlantic (among others he chose from my collection). While I managed to speak with him from time to time after that, I wasn’t all that hopeful and I could not make myself go see him. And it was a phone call from Anton (where’s he nowadays?) early one morning telling me “Tarheel passed that evening”. I did not take it well, as my company that evening/morning would attest to if asked. I hate losing friends, for they are few on the ground, in spite of today’s digital lessening of the value of that word. I attended the funeral, but I was angry… deservedly so, I think. I still miss my friend – seven years was nice, but it was still too short a time.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM 286: pp. 16-18.