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.” (more…)