“Carolina Slim”

carolinaSavoy Jazz 1153 – Carolina Slim, “Blues Go Away From Me”

 

Every time blues brings sadness                                                                                                      Chase ‘em away with gladness                                                                                                        Cryin’ those blues’ll grieve you                                                                                                      Swingin’ those blues’ll leave you                                                                                                      Really nothing go it                                                                                                                        Swingin’ the blues’ll do it.[1]                                                                                                                                            

                 – J. Hendricks

 

This is what singer Jon Hendricks wrote for the Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross recording of Count Basie’s “Swingin’ the Blues” in 1958. And what a great way to approach the blues of the Southeast, some of the swingin’-est blues ever recorded. This album brings back a very rare [Sharp LP] compilation from 1954 of all the songs by Carolina Slim [done for Savoy]… and he swings!

Most of the writing about blues has tended to have a narrow focus. Such terms as “Delta Blues” or “Chicago Blues” have become the clichés of blues commentary, yet they are not very useful or meaningful terms for either the scholar or the performer. In the South Central states [region] and the mid-western city to which such terms refer, many different styles of blues have existed. Certainly such Mississippians as Son House and Skip James, or Chicagoans like Red Saunders or Floyd Jones show the varieties of approach that existed in both those locations. Perspectives on blues music that stress these titles are very constrained and give the blues of other regions rather short shrift. In fact, both the Southeast and Southwest had blues styles that could be meaningfully thought of as regional in a way that cannot be done for the middle of this country. The blues musicians of the Southeast produced a style that might even be called pandemic to its territory, though still incompletely researched and understood. Speaking of regions can be a useful tool as long as the “tool-ness” of the concept is kept in mind, for no generalization will hold in all cases. Yet when examining the blues music recorded by artists from the southeastern states, a certain homogeneity [of style] can be heard. The territory itself is quite large, taking in Virginia, both Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida, as well as eastern Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. By 1930, one main approach to the music predominated throughout this area, at least as preserved on phonograph records. This style was one with deep roots in the turn-of the-century music known as ragtime, but it had inputs from other “Afro” precursors, plus from many white forms of popular and traditional music as well. Truly an amalgam of all the music’s that were in the air around 1900 was produced in the Southeast at the time that blues was taking hold as a popular music.

The popularity of the southeastern blues began in 1924, only five years after the first black blues record of any kind. That style continued as a viable commercial entity right up to the Second World War, after which time it [gradually] dropped from the limelight as a form of popular black music on a national scale. It still continues to be played on a local level, after some twenty years of market success… a long time for any kind of popular music to be selling. The stars of the region were people like Blind Blake, Josh White, Buddy Moss, and Blind Boy Fuller – the last supposedly had a half-million seller in 1940! With the end of the war, the southeastern blues tapered off commercially, with some attempts at updating, with the likes of Brownie McGhee (see SJL 1137), Gabriel Brown, Ralph Willis (see SJL 2255), and Carolina Slim, the artists featured here.

Not too much is known about Carolina Slim, save the fact that he was born Edward P. Harris in the town of Leesburg, N.C. on August 22, 1923. Beyond that, things are a biographical blank, save for the notes by Wilson Winslow on the original release of this record – a mixture of fact, fiction, and romanticism.

Carolina Slim is gone, but the great legacy of folk blues music he has left us lingers on, growing in importance and impact with each new hearing. Carolina Slim sang homespun, down home, absolutely informal, compulsively rhythmic blues in the tradition of Pine Top Smith, Leadbelly, and Muddy Waters. His music has “the quick, vigorous jump of hand-clapping gospel music; the hushed soulfulness of the spiritual; the cry of the mornings first song in the fields; the rough, happy blues of the Saturday night fish fry.” There is also a sunny humor in his songs, and a certain charm in his tongue-in-cheek references to sensuality such as the dialogue about feminine dimensions, capabilities, and desirability in the rendition of “The Carolina Boogie”. All of the 12 songs heard in this album are original folk blues ballads composed by Carolina Slim out of a wealth of background material he gathered from travels through the backwoods and hamlets of the rural South.

Carolina Slim, also known as Georgia Pin, was born with the relatively undistinguished name of Ed Harris down in Texas. He grew up amid the field and forest workers whose lives, exploits, and deaths have become such an integral part of his music. His Daddy taught him to play the guitar and passed down to Slim hundreds of songs accumulated in a lifetime that began before the Civil War. Carolina Slim grew up to be a veritable giant of a man, standing over six and a half feet tall. As a young man, his giant strides took him into the most remote corners of of every state in the South and Southwest. He brought new songs, new stories, new joy to cotton the fields of Georgia and the Carolinas; to the bottomlands of the Mississippi Delta; to the rowdy, rollicking turpentine camps in the Piney Woods of Texas and Arkansas. While the folk music of America is a variegated, big-hearted, and broad-shouldered as the country itself, ranging from the chanteys of the Glouster[sic] fishermen outbound to danger, to the flamenco-spiced ballads of the Mexican border, none of the music has more soul, more honesty, more ability to reach directly to the heart of human feeling and experience than the songs of the fields and work-camps of our Deep South where Carolina Slim roamed.

Slim was a messenger of music, a chronicler of life as it really happened, as it is happening today in all of its stark, yet dynamic simplicity, unvarnished by false conventions and over refinement. He was a troubador of the Blues; a Johnny Appleseed, planting songs in the hearts of people wherever he strode on his never-ending pilgrimage. But death is seldom more than a stride behind any of us, and it caught up with Carolina Slim far from his beloved sunny fields and tall pine country. He died in a hospital in Newark, New Jersey last year, but he was already a legend.[2]

 

The firm dates mentioned in these notes come from Sheldon Harris, who has Slim’s death-certificate, so Texas as a birthplace is probably incorrect, but the peripatetic ways described in the notes were probably true. Edward P. Harris died on October 22, 1953 in St. James Hospital (honest!) – he has entered for back surgery and succumbed to heart failure while on the operating table. He was thirty years old.

This collection of material comes from sessions done over two years for release either on Savoy or Acorn as singles; some of the materiel here was never issued on 78, though. Herman Lubinsky played his infamous name-game with Harris, so some singles came out as by “Lazy Slim Jim” or “Jammin’ Jim”, as well as by Carolina Slim. Of course, Harris did this to himself when he recorded for King Records at the same time using the soubriquet of “Country Paul” (his middle name?). This was probably to get around any exclusivity in his Savoy contract, a practice very common during the fifties, as independent labels cropped [up] everywhere needing talent. [And disappearing, too!] Jack Dupree and John Lee Hooker come readily to mind as artists who developed this to a fine art.

As a performer, Carolina Slim has generally been pigeon-holed as doing fast tunes like Blind Boy Fuller and slow ones like Lightnin’ Hopkins. The twelve cuts re-released her give the lie to that position, and make it necessary to re-evaluate this artist. In fact, Harris and Hopkins were likely influenced by many of the same artists on record (including Fuller) and it was not all that surprising that they would exhibit some similarities in their playing. If what Winslow says about and direct Texas connection is correct, then it is even less surprising. Ed Harris was working within a tradition and creating something truly his own out of it – that is really what the old liner notes are saying in a flowery way. Here are some examples of that tradition at work.

 

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                    University of Pennsylvania – Folklore Department

 

 

RAG MAMA: The first side of the album begins with a song lifted in toto from the Blind Boy Fuller canon (“Rag Mama Rag”, recorded in 1935). The addition of a snare-drummer is a logical updating of the style, replacing the washboard present on many of Fuller’s records. It is also a swinging, jaunty was to begin a record! -A

SUGAREE: This slow blues performance smacks very much of the Hopkins linkage that has already been discussed. The lazy guitar playing and laconic the singing probably help give rise to one of Harris’ noms-des-disques, Lazy Slim Jim. -A

BLUES GO AWAY FROM ME: Here is a slow blues that is firmly in the southeastern camp, originally unissued as a single. Taken with the previous number, this cut shows well the stylistic cross-ruffing that may have taken place between artists from the Southwest and Southeast. -A

SHAKE BOOGIE: A prototypical Piedmont rag-boogie that is replete with marked foot-pounding, patting the guitar top, and scraping the strings below the bridge. All are rhythmic, crowd-pleasing gimmicks that raise the excitement level of this swingy performance. -A

WORRYING BLUES: This is yet another lovely southeastern slow blues, one constructed of traditional verses, and is another that never made it to 78. It’s also a performance that does not stick fully to the 12-bar blues format, something a solo artist can do with impunity. -A

SLOW FREIGHT BLUES: An odd titling of a song done a bit later by Harris for King under the title of “Your Picture Done Faded”, but an indication that certain songs were to the fore of Harris’ repertoire at that time. There is one reference to a train in the lyric, which may have given rise to this title. Whatever the reason may be, this is still a good song. -A

WINE HEAD BABY: From Harris’ last Savoy session, this is a variation on the “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” theme popularized by Stick McGhee [a] few years previous. It’s a slow rag-boogie that is greatly enhanced by the presence of the unknown drummer with his brushes. -B

POUR ME ONE MORE DRINK: A continuation of the booze focus, as well as speaking of lost love, this song is set in a “pure” southeastern mould. Interestingly, other influences creep in, for there is a touch of Big Boy Crudup guitar dissonance in the first bars of each chorus. -B

CAROLINA BOOGIE: The only song mentioned in the old notes, this was never on 78 (probably because it went beyond the three-minute time limit). Additionally, it’s not listed in the Savoy files (!), although it “feels” like it belongs with the two previous cuts. Savoy tended to group items on LP from the same session – also here there is a drummer and the guitar is unamplified. Like “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”, it has a sense of running commentary on imaginary proceedings. This gorgeous romp gives the listener a good sense of how this music was used in real life – true house-party music… and give the drummer some! -B

I’LL GET BY SOMEHOW: On the second session in 1951, Carolina Slim plays a lightly amplified guitar (unlike his flanking dates). Here Slim does a “Things About Coming My Way”-type song that falls out of the standard AAB blues-verse structure. In fact, it doesn’t sound like a blues at all on first listen! But it is. -C

BLUES KNOCKIN’ AT MY DOOR: Here is one of those songs that deals with blues as an emotional state in an anthropomorphic manner… there’s an article for someone in there! The first and last verses speak of “the blues” as a personage, while the two middle verses are concerned with the reason for the feeling: abandonment. -C

WORRY YOU OFF MY MIND: The album closes out with a new set of lyrics to the “Some Cold, Rainy Day” melody that was a southeastern standard. In his own laconic way, Harris brings it all full-circle to a close in stunning fashion. -C

 

Soon as you feel ‘em comin’                                                                                                                   Right away I start hummin’                                                                                                        Everything’s free and easy                                                                                                                   Long as you’re feelin ‘ breezy                                                                                                             Really ain’t nothing to it                                                                                                                 Swingin’ the blues’ll do it.[3]

 

Ed Harris – vo/gtr on all sides.                                                                                                     Unknown drums where present, unknown speech on B-3

A – New York; 14 June, 1951                                                                                                                  B – New York; 5 June, 1952                                                                                                                    C – New York; 22 March, 1951

[1] Basie-Durham-Hendricks; Bregman, Vocco & Conn (ASCAP), 1936/1958.

[2] Wilson Winslow – liner notes to “Blues From the Cotton Fields” by Carolina Slim: Sharp 2002, Newark, NJ (1954)

[3] the same as footnote # 1.

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