Sunday, October 09, 2011

Henry Thomas

Henry Thomas, nicknamed “Ragtime Texas,” was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas by most accounts, a town that lies roughly between Dallas and Shreveport. The 1874 date marks him as one of the eldest-born blues performers on record. “Flailing his guitar,” Tony Russell writes, “in now forgotten country dance rhythms, whistling delicate melodies on his panpipes, gruffly chanting rag songs and blues, Thomas is a figure of almost legend.” The portrait Thomas presents on his twenty-three recordings cut for Vocalion between 1927 and 1929 provides, Russell notes, “a wholly absorbing picture of black country music before it was submerged beneath the tidal wave of the blues.” Thomas embodied the term songster, cutting blues, rags, country stomps, refashioned coon songs and square dance numbers. Thomas was the archetypal rambling musician who went wherever the railroads would take him. According to Mack McCormick, as told to him by a former railroad conductor, “Ragtime Texas was a big fellow that used to come aboard at Gladewater or Mineola or somewhere in there. I’d always carry him, except when he was too dirty. He was a regular hobo, but I’d carry him most of the time. That guitar was his ticket.” Speaking of [Thomas’] famous “Railroadin’ Some,” William Barlow calls it the most “vivid and intense recollection of railroading” in all the early blues recorded in the 1920s. As for his guitar, Stephen Calt ranked his work “with the finest dance blues ever recorded . . . its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era.” The panpipes also linked him to an earlier era and are most evocative in perhaps his best-known composition, “Bull-Doze Blues,” a song reworked by Canned Heat as “Going Up The Country” some 40 years after the original. After making his final recordings in Chicago in 1929, Henry Thomas disappeared completely from sight. As befits his near-mythic stature some reports claim to have seen him perform as late as the mid-1950s on Texas street corners. It is believed that he most likely passed away sometime during this period. All of Thomas’ recordings can be found on Texas Worried Blues on Yazoo and Henry Thomas (“Ragtime Texas”) 1927–1929 on Document with little difference in sound quality, although the Yazoo features detailed notes by Stephen Calt. —Jeff Harris

Following are several Henry Thomas tunes, including my all-time favorite, “Don’t Ease Me In,” along with his justly famous “Bull-Doze Blues” and the great travelogue “Railroadin’ Some.” We also hear from Al Wilson and Canned Heat with their revamp of “Bull-Doze,” a goofy homage to “my dear Henry” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, and a cover of Canned Heat’s cover by the teenage family trio Kitty, Daisy & Lewis bringing the music of Henry Thomas full circle and into the twenty-first century.

Jeff Harris presides over the excellent Big Road Blues blog and radio show of the same name. The show airs on Sundays from 5 to 7 pm (EST) on WGMC Jazz90.1. Check him out. . . . (The above Henry Thomas bio is from Jeff’s notes to the Big Road Blues Show 8/14/11: Texas Worried Blues – Early Texas Masters.)

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