SUNNYLAND SLIM / “Baby How Long”

Do a little investigating and you’ll find that trains are a consistent metaphor throughout Black American literature, storytelling and song, particularly pre-Civil Rights era. Why? Think about it: we’re talking about times when blacks were living with the painful combination of lots of reasons to run yet very few ways to do so. One of those few ways was to hop a train.
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Usually, as in the case of Jimi Hendrix’ “Hear My Train A Comin’” or Muddy Waters’ “Train Fare Home,” the train is a positive element of the overall imagery.
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© Terry Cryer 2007

The train is either a means to get away from something bad (Waters’ “blues and trouble”) or it’s a way to get going towards something good (Hendrix says the train is going to take him someplace where he’ll make enough money to come back and buy the whole town). But in other cases, as in the case of this week’s feature track, Sunnyland Slim’s “Baby How Long,” the train isn’t a means of escape, not for the narrator at least. Instead it symbolizes the distance (either real or metaphorical) between the singer and his used-to-be lover.
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Pianist and singer Albert ‘Sunnyland Slim’ Luandrew was born in Mississippi and played the blues in Memphis before making his way first to Chicago and then New Jersey were he finally recorded his first album as a leader, Slim’s Shout. Slim’s 1960 recording “Baby How Long” is from that debut album and it features Slim’s New Orleans-style piano playing along with sax work from the legendary ‘King’ Curtis Ousley. The song tells the story of a guy who finds himself at the train station trying to figure out how long has the evening train been gone because that’s the train his baby caught after she left him. Despite the somber tone of the lyrics, Slim and Curtis play the song with a rollicking feel and at a jaunty pace, both more suggestive of a Saturday night at a juke joint than an evening spent alone, pining for an absent woman.

Despite the different titles, Slim’s “Baby How Long” is a virtually word-for-word cover of Leroy Carr’s much older “How Long, How Long Blues.”
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In Carr’s hands, the train metaphor isn’t just in the lyrics, it’s in the music too. Guitarist Scrapper Blackwell’s deliberate and low-toned strumming mixes with Carr’s left hand (playing the bass notes) to sound like the rhythmic rumbling of engine roaring up the tracks. Meanwhile, Carr’s right hand plays high notes that have the same tone and feel of a train’s air whistle. Carr’s pace is much slower than Slim’s too; overall the original sounds more like what the song is actually about. Despite that, I have to admit I still prefer the rocking and rolling of Slim’s uptempo cover.
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Kalamu hit me with a few more covers of “Baby How Long”/”How Long Blues.” Of the ones he sent me, my favorites were Ray Charles’ ballad treatment (although I never would’ve known that was Ray – the voice sounds like someone else) and Estelle ‘Mama’ Yancey’s version (which preserves the melody and rhythm of the original, but with completely different lyrics).

Get your tickets here:

-    Sunnyland Slim’s “Baby How Long” – From Slim’s Shout (Bluesville, 1969)
-    Leroy Carr’s “How Long, How Long Blues” – Originally issued as a 78rpm single (Vocalion, 1928); available on Hurry Down Sunshine: The Essential Recordings (Indigo UK, 1995)

Bonus trips:

-    Muddy Waters’ “Train Fare Home” – Originally issued as a 45rpm single (Aristocrat, 1948); available on His Best: 1946 To 1955 (Chess/MCA, 1997)
-    Jimi Hendrix’ “Here My Train A Coming” – Originally performed live in 1967 on 12-string acoustic guitar for the promotional film See My Music Talking; available on Jimi Hendrix: Blues (MCA, 1994)

—Mtume ya Salaam

            Water from a common well              

There was a time when it was popular for damn near every blues singer of note to draw upon a common well of material. “How Long Blues” is a prime example of one of them well water songs. Most everybody sang it, sometimes mostly like Leroy Carr first recorded, other times in some idiosyncratic way that reflect the performer’s tastes and proclivities.

This common well of source material actually helped blues singers develop their own style. People wanted to hear the familiar only done in a different way, so a singer had to find their own way into a song if they hoped to make any noise to which folks would pay attention.
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In addition to the Ray Charles and the Mama Yancy versions, I’m adding the Count Basie featuring “Mr. Five-by-Five” (so named for his short statue and ample girth) aka Jimmy Rushing. It is noteworthy that “How Long Blues” was not only a favorite of acoustic country blues artists but the swing orchestras dug it too and no orchestra did it better than Count Basie. Well, maybe Jay McShan and the gang could have given them a run for it but I’m not aware of a recording of “How Long” by Jay’s band.

Although we are mindful that this is the age of bottled water, we obviously believe that water from an ancient well is good for what ails us, thus we’ll keep on giving short sips from the deep, deep well of blues classics.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 4th, 2007 at 12:36 pm and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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