Henry Thomas

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from http://record-fiend.blogspot.com via http://blog.dinosaurdiscs.com:

Listening to Henry Thomas is like taking a journey in a musical time machine. With a probable birth year of 1874, this makes him one of the earliest-born African American musicians to release 78s in the 1920s. It is fortunate that the songster recorded so prolifically for Vocalion during this time for it is by listening to these performances that we are able to have something of an idea of what rural black music sounded like before the turn of the last century.

Assuming that Thomas developed much of his repertory during his teens and early 20s, it stands to reason that many of the tunes in his songbook dated from the 1880s and 1890s, if not earlier. Thus, with the singer-guitarist being approximately 53 years old during his first recording session in 1927, most of his material was already a representation of the folkways of a bygone era, when the steam locomotive was still opening up previously isolated corners of the North American continent.

This last detail is extremely significant because, according to Mack McCormick, Thomas was as notable a hobo as he was a musician and allegedly traveled on freight lines to the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where he performed outside of these events as a street singer. Furthermore, “Ragtime Texas” was apparently the nickname by which he was known by other transients who rode the rails. McCormick explains,

“It’s a hobo moniker. It isn’t so much a musical designation as it is an assumed title of the same order as “Chicago Red” and “T-Bone Slim” and other such celebrities. It’s a name to be written on water towers and box cars. Moreover it’s a moniker remembered in parts of Oklahoma and Louisiana and Texas, but known best along a 150-mile strip of East Texas. This is the area he came from and it’s here that fragments of his story have turned up.”

The music of Henry Thomas is breathtakingly beautiful in its utter simplicity. As someone who came of age circa 1890, he was part of that generation of African American musicians who were the first to forgo the banjo in favor of the guitar. Although not a virtuoso along the lines of Blind Blake or Robert Johnson, he knew how to tune the instrument properly (no small accomplishment at the time) and incorporated a few primitive blues songs (often featuring lines that did not rhyme and/or follow the later, standardized AAB verse structure) into his repertory.

Additionally, the songster’s recordings are in many instances noteworthy for featuring quills, pan pipes constructed from sugar cane that were mounted on a neck rack for easy access while he sang and played guitar. Although other similar musicians may have been capable of the same feat, Thomas remains virtually unique in this regard among race artists who were recorded during the 1920s and 1930s.

Thomas was a true songster in that his repertory was extremely varied and included only a few numbers that could accurately be classified as blues. Again, this was probably a reflection of the age in which he became proficient as a musician. However, his profession as a street singer also probably had a lot to do with the material that he regularly performed since the desires of his audience often dictated what he played. Musicians of his type were essentially the juke boxes of their day.

In order to gauge Thomas’ adaptability as an entertainer, one need look no further than the variety of music contained within his discography. For example, he was adept at performing ballads such as “John Henry” and “Bob McKinney,” with the latter containing numerous lines from “Take Me Back” and “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” two popular tunes from the 1890s. Material of probable white origin like “Old Country Stomp,” “Run Mollie Run,” “The Little Red Caboose,” and “Shanty Blues” (the only side to feature slide guitar) bears at least superficial similarity to pieces that were possibly vaudeville-derived including “Arkansas,” “Honey, Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance?” (interpreted by Bob Dylan on his first album), “Woodhouse Blues,” and “Fishing Blues” (notably covered by both the Lovin’ Spoonful and Taj Mahal).

The remainder of his sides includes performances that can best be described as rags (“Red River Blues,” “Don’t Ease Me In,” “Lovin’ Babe,” and “Don’t Leave Me Here”), blues (“Cottonfield Blues,” “Texas Easy Street,” “Texas Worried Blues,” and “Bull Doze Blues,” the inspiration for Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country”), and spirituals (“Jonah in the Wilderness” and “When the Train Comes Along”).

Since Thomas was the product of a time when white and black musical styles were still developing, it is not always easy to pigeonhole his performances into the categories that exist today. Indeed, some musicologists might place more emphasis on the instrumental characteristics of many of these recordings and classify them as square dance numbers based upon his guitar’s accenting patterns. But any way you slice it, Henry Thomas is a giant in the history of American music and someone who must have led a truly remarkable existence.

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