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During his career as a bluesman, Keo native Elmon Mickle was known by a variety of nicknames: Harmonica Harry, Model T Slim, Drifting Smith, but the stage name that stuck best was Driftin’ Slim.
Born Feb. 24, 1919, to Eva and William Mickle, Mickle said, “I didn’t have to work on no sharecropper or nothing like that.”
While still in his late teens, Mickle persuaded John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson I to coach him on harmonica. (This Sonny Boy Williamson is not to be confused with Sonny Boy “Rice Miller” Williamson II, who lived and died in Helena.) Later in life, Driftin’ Slim would brag he could perform every number John Lee Williamson ever recorded.
Although Mickle could play more contemporary blues styles as well as the older rural blues, blues were unfashionable by the time he first recorded.
Mickle lived and played in Little Rock in the 1940s and early ’50s. During this time, he cut songs like “My Little Machine” at area radio stations KDRK and KGHI. Mickle also recorded several tracks at a North Little Rock music store in the early 1950s with Ike Turner, who was a record label talent scout as well as a performer. The Driftin’ Slim track “Good Morning Baby,” recorded May 6, 1952, in North Little Rock, features Ike Turner on piano, guitarists Babyface Turner and Junior Brooks and Bill Russell on drums.
Mickle moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and was based out of California for the rest of his career. He continued playing a variety of instruments and recorded standard blues for smaller labels like Wonder, Kent and Elko. Never hugely popular, Mickle didn’t cash in on the late 1950s-’60s folk-blues revivals.
But Mickle really found his voice when performing as a one-man band — singing and playing harmonica, guitar, hi-hat and bass drum. Recordings made in December 1966 and January 1967 show he was a natural storyteller.
Long through with commercial blues recording, Mickle was a California factory worker when he made these recordings for UCLA’s Center for Comparative Study of Folklore and Mythology — and they’re possibly his most personal and interesting songs.
One story Mickle tells has him getting knocked out in the woods outside Keo as a lad by a tree being loaded onto a wagon. He had moved to the wrong spot while getting a dip of snuff from a friend: “I ain’t liked no snuff since.”
“I had a sister and a brother before me,” Mickle explains in another song. “... I was the third child my mother had. The first one my mama had — I don’t know which one of them, daddy or mama — laid on him and smothered him to death. The second one, was vice-versa. I got awful close [to being suffocated] myself.” As he glibly continues with the horrific tale, Mickle’s maternal grandparents rescue him from his parents, which angers the paternal side. A 9 a.m. duel on the streets of Keo is planned for the next day between Mickle’s grandfathers, “but the people in the community, they talked them out of it.”
He concludes: “If you need any further information, you can write Keo, Arkansas, and write Arch Mickle.”
Elmon “Driftin’ Slim” Mickle died in 1977 in California.
• “This World is None of My Home”
• “I’m Hunting Somebody”
• “Till I Got Sixteen”
• “My Little Machine”