Archive for the ‘Carolina Tar Heels’ Category

Gwen Foster

October 31, 2012


Besides being one of the finest early harmonica players Gwen Foster was also an excellent guitarist and singer. He played 2nd guitar or back-up guitar on the Tar Heel recordings. Foster used a “rack” to hold his harmonica so he could play guitar at the same time. His friend David McCarn (composer of “Cotton Mill Colic” and “Everyday Dirt”) recalled that with his dark skin, and an oriental look to him, Gwen acquired the nickname “China” pronounced “Chinee.”  McCarn worked with Foster at the Victory Mill in South Gastonia said Gwen “entertained them when the work slowed down and they thought his French harp (harmonica) was as powerful as a pipe organ. Gwen ruined a flour barrel full of harps by his constant playing” [Archie Green]. Although Gwen Foster was a musical genius, he drank too heavily at times. Tom Ashley would laugh and tell about sobering him up on cider and moonshine before they went to play.

Foster was a mill worker like many musicians (Charlie Poole, Henry Whitter) from the Gastonia, NC area. One of the favorite gathering places for Foster and other local musicians was in front of Lackey’s Hardware Store in Old Fort, North Carolina. Regulars at Lackey’s were Foster on guitar and harmonica, Clarence Greene on fiddle and Roy Neal on three-finger style banjo. Occasionally, musicians from out of town, like Will Abernathy, who played the autoharp, would join the mob assembled on the front porch of the store. The musicians left a hat out front for bystanders to pitch a penny but never made much money from it.

Foster became known for his playing and drinking as well as his antics. At Lackey’s he first met talented guitarist Walter Davis. The two musicians became fast friends and frequently could be found playing on street corners for pennies all across North Carolina. Walter remembers one time in particular when they were together in Morganton, North Carolina:

“Me and Gwen were in Morganton one time broke, and looking for some way to make a little money. Gwen said he knew of a way to make some money fast. He was going to pretend that he was blind while we played on the street corner in front of the courthouse. He put on some sunglasses, and told me to pass the hat around. I told him, ‘no, you attach the tin cup to your guitar strap and people will sympathize with you more. I don’t want any part of this deal.’ So he played for a while and some lady came up and tried to put a fifty cent piece in his cup. But she missed the cup and the coin went rolling down the street. Gwen went right after that coin like a man who could see. That lady said something like ‘That boy don’t look so blind to me.’ At that point me and Gwen took off running, and I believe that was our last engagement in Morganton.”


Dock Walsh

October 13, 2012


A Wilkes County, NC musician born on a farm in Lewis Fork (now named Ferguson) to Lee Walsh and Diana Elizabeth Gold Walsh on July 23, 1901, Doctor “Dock” Coble Walsh was one of eight children who played music. His first banjo, fretless and made out of an axle grease box, was given to him by his older brother when he was just four years old. As a teen he began playing banjo and singing locally where earned some money performing. Besides his trademark three-finger style, Dock played “knife-style” or slide banjo on some of his recordings by placing pennies under the instrument’s bridge and playing the strings with a knife, somewhat similar to bottle-neck slide guitar playing.

When Dock was in his teens he started playing at dance parties with his friends and alone; sometimes he earned some money. Soon he bought a good Bruno banjo in Lenior, which he used until his 1925 recording sessions.  In 1921 Dock became a public school teacher after receiving his teaching certificate at Mountain View. After he heard Henry Whitter’s recording of “Wreck of the Old 97” on Okeh Records, Dock became determined to make a record.

He wrote Okeh and then Columbia records but got no response. Undeterred, he quit his teaching position and moved to Atlanta where both companies did field recordings and got a job working in cotton fields. After six months he arranged an audition with Columbia’s Bill Brown. On October 3, 1925, he recorded four songs under the supervision of Frank Walker, who put pillows under his feet to “stop the racket” Walsh made keeping time with his shoe heels. His first single was “I’m Free At Last,” backed by “East Bound Train.” He next did a parody of “The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennessee” called “Bulldog Down In Sunny Tennessee” and “Educated Man,” a version of  “I’m A Highly Educated Man” known as  “I Was Born 4,000 Years Ago.” After his triumphant recording session he walked home from Atlanta to Wilkes County; a distance of over 300 miles!

No longer interested in teaching, Walsh devoted himself to being a professional musician. He traveled the highways and byways, entertaining lumber haulers and sawmill workers along the way. The Columbia catalogue for 1927 read: “Dock Walsh is hard to catch. So great is the demand for him at country-dances and entertainments in the South, that it’s mighty hard to tell where he’ll be next. However when you catch him, it’s worth all the trouble.”

He played primarily in the claw hammer style but along with Charlie Poole and Dock Boggs, was another forerunner of the three-finger style. On April 17, 1926 Walsh once again returned to Atlanta to wax “We Courted in the Rain,” “Knocking on The Henhouse Door,” “Going Back To Jericho,” “Traveling Man” and the very first recording of  “In The Pines” for Columbia. He met some of the musicians soon to be named the Skillet Lickers including Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner and Fate Norris.

In the summer of 1926 Dock was playing banjo and harmonica (on a rack) in Gaston County when a listener offered to take him to see a good harmonica player, Gwen Foster. Gwen, who was a doffer in a Dallas NC mill, began playing with Walsh. They teamed up with two Gastonia area guitarists, Dave Fletcher and Floyd Williams forming the Four Yellowjackets. A Victor talent scout heard them and they traveled to Atlanta where Ralph Peer recorded four duets with Foster and Walsh naming them the Carolina Tar Heels.

Dock Walsh billed himself as the “The Banjo King of the Carolinas.” Charlie Poole, a similar three-finger style mountain banjo picker who also recorded for Columbia in 1925, had a smash hit (selling 102,000 copies) with “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Walsh was well aware of Poole’s career with Columbia and covered one of his songs,  “The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennessee,” with his parody called “Bulldog Down In Sunny Tennessee.” It’s probable that Poole’s success with Columbia was a bone of contention for Walsh as Columbia boasted in their catalogue: Charlie Poole is unquestionably the best-known banjo picker and singer in the Carolinas.

Walsh never again recorded for Columbia. On one concert poster for the original Tar Heels, Dock Walsh was billed as the Banjo King of the Carolinas and Garley Foster as The Human Bird (for his bird calls). In his last solo session Walsh recorded the folk hymn “Bathe in that Beautiful Pool” for Victor on Sept. 25, 1929. The other songs from the session were: “Laura Lou,” “A Precious Sweetheart From Me Is Gone” and “We’re Just Plain Folks.”

Walsh married in 1929 and immediately began raising a family. To make ends meet he went “bustin” or “ballying” on the streets (playing for spare change) with Garley. On May 30, 1931 Walsh and Garley Foster also recorded under the name, Pine Mountain Boys, which curiously is the same line-up as the next to last Carolina Tar Heel session in November 1930. The five songs that emerged from the session were: “The Gas Run Out,” “She Wouldn’t Be Still,” “Roll On Daddy Roll On,” The Apron String Blues” and “Wild Women Blues.”

After his recording career ended in the early 1932, Walsh worked in the poultry business to support his growing family- two boys and two girls. Later in the 1950s he became an outside salesman for a North Wilkesboro auto parts firm, C.D. Coffee and Sons.
After decades of inactivity, Dock the group reformed in 1961. Walsh has been dead for several years but played at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention as recently as 1959. The second generation of the Carolina Tar Heels featured his son, Drake Walsh of Millers Creek, recently a member Elkville String Band as well as original member Garley Foster. They recorded an album for Folk Legacy in 1964. Drake, born on Dec. 28, 1930, played fiddle and guitar, played with his Danc-A-Lons at the North Wilkesboro VFW on Saturday nights.

Peg and Awl

September 28, 2012


Carolina Tar Heels
“Peg and Awl” (Victor V-40007, 1928)

“Peg and Awl” is a song about making shoes, and while that may seem like a mundane subject, it is executed in a way that is marvelously entertaining. The song is sung from the perspective of a shoemaker who toils away year after year making shoes by hand with the tools of the day: peg and awl. When a new machine is invented that makes it possible to make shoes much faster and easier, the shoemaker rejoices, because “Peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun.”

Historically, the song gets the timing wrong: shoemaking machines weren’t in use until the late 19th century, not the beginning. But that’s really not the point; the real strength of the song is its presentation, which is catchy and subtly comical. The song is played on guitar and banjo, with harmonica added at the beginning and end. A rustic, nasal voice sings the verses, while another voice periodically interjects, “Peg and awl!” The word “awl” is always stretched out into an almost hound-dog like howl. At the end of the song, it is a howl of triumph when that second voice finally says, “Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl!”


The song itself is what I would consider an example of Deep Craft. Though presumably written by an anonymous cobbler almost two hundred years ago, its message remains relevant, like an early 19th century version of Moore’s Law, and the song’s survival both transcends and acknowledges the passing from a craft-based to an industrial production paradigm. Yet it manages to romanticize neither.

The origin of the word ‘toil’ has two Latin derivations. As a verb, it derives from ‘tudes’, to hammer; as a noun it derives from ‘tela’, a web.

As illustrated by the song ‘Peg and Awl’, making things offers an opportunity to elevate the ‘toil’ of handwork into something more timeless, like a memorable song, which might outlive any of the practical products of artisanry (shoes?). The cadence of the song and collaborative exchange of its interlocking parts hints at a kind of pre-machine logic. The low-energy instrumentation and light-hearted delivery captures a comic ambivalence and reluctant enthusiasm for the dawning Industrial Revolution. More so than shoes, ‘Peg and Awl’ is the exalted product of tireless handwork, and sounds like its authors knew exactly what they were doing.

Carolina Tar Heels

September 17, 2012


The Carolina Tar Heels recorded their first sides on Feb. 19, 1927 for Ralph Peer on Victor Records.  Atlanta was the first of three southern locations Peer brought his new portable recording system. The Tar Heels featured a cast of talented Country musicians revolving around three-finger banjo virtuoso Dock (Doctor Coble) Walsh. In 1925 Walsh made his first recordings for Columbia as a solo artist and formed the Carolina Tar Heels with harmonica wizard Gwen Foster and Tom Ashley. Ashley was not present at the first session so Foster played harmonica and guitar with Walsh playing banjo.

Eventually Garley Foster (no relation) replaced Gwen Foster. Coincidentally both men played harmonica (French harp) and guitar. One of the unusual things about the Carolina Tar Heels was the absence of a fiddler, standard fare for most early string bands. Gwen Foster has been recognized as one of the finest harmonica players in early Country Music. His  “Wilkes County Blues,” and the Tar Heel’s “Drunk Man Blues” or “My Sweet Farm Girl” showcase Fosters brilliant harmonica work.

The career of Walsh was rivaled by band member Clarence (Tom) Ashley who would record solo (banjo and vocal) and with Gwen Foster, also with Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots, The Blue Ridge Entertainers and later in the 60s with Doc Watson, Clint Howard, Fred Price and Gaither Carlton. Ashley also played an important role introducing songs like “Rising Sun Blues (House of the Rising Sun),” “Little Sadie,” “Dark Holler,” and “Greenback Dollar.” A new CD is out entitled Greenback Dollar which chronicles Ashley’s recordings with different groups from 1928 to 1933.
The Carolina Tar Heels featured a rotating group of four musicians from the North Carolina mountains: Dock Walsh (banjo and lead vocals); Gwen Foster (guitar, vocals and harmonica); Tom Ashley (banjo; guitar and lead vocals) and later Garley Foster (guitar, harmonica vocals) who replaced Gwen Foster (they are not related). Ralph Peer named the group (Walsh and Gwen Foster) at their first Victor session in Atlanta. According to some sources Walsh and Tom Ashley met at a fiddler’s convention in 1925. Later he asked Ashley to join the Tar Heels as a guitarist and singer (both vocal lead and harmony).

The Carolina Tar Heels made 18 records (36 songs) in seven sessions for the Victor label (Feb. 19, 1927 in Atlanta; Aug. 11-14 1927 in Charlotte; Oct 10-14, 1928 in Atlanta; Nov. 14, 1928 in Atlanta; April 4, 1929 in Camden, NJ; Nov. 19, 1930 Memphis and lastly Feb. 25, 1932 in Atlanta). The last two sessions were made after the Great Depression (Oct. 1929) which was largely responsible putting an end to the recordings of The Carolina Tar Heels. Most groups folded in the early 1930s and looked for suitable work outside the music business.

Ashley wasn’t present at the first sessions in 1927, which were made by Dock Walsh and Gwen Foster, or the last in 1932. Some of the songs recorded for Columbia by Walsh in 1925 and 1926 were recorded again for Victor with different titles (“Going Back to Jericho” became “Back To Mexico”) to avoid copyright infringement. Individual members of the group (Ashley with Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots and solo for Columbia at The Johnson City Sessions in 1929 and Gwen Foster with the Carolina Twins) would make records with different groups until the Ashley- Gwen Foster sessions for Vocalion in Sept. 1933.

During the 1960s folk revival Walsh reorganized the Carolina Tar Heels with his son Drake and former member Garley Foster. The new band recorded an LP for Folk Legacy produced by Eugene Earl and Archie Green. I interviewed Green briefly and obtained his permission to use the liner notes, which I received from Sandy Patton. Many of the original Tar Heel’s songs were covered on the 1962 recording. “Gene had an Ampex recorder and I was his assistant,” recalled Green. “I remember Dock telling me, ‘Wilkes County has a lot of moonshiners’, they claimed it was moonshine capital of the world. We recorded a bunch of songs and picked out what we thought were the most representative.”