Henry Thomas (blues musician)
Big Sandy, Texas
|Genres||Country blues, ragtime, gospel|
|Occupations||Singer, songster, musician|
|Instruments||Guitar, vocals, quills (panpipes)|
|Years active||recorded 1927-29|
Henry Thomas (born 1874, Big Sandy, Texas – died 1930) was an American country blues singer, songster and musician, who enjoyed a brief but notable recording career in the late 1920s. Often billed as "Ragtime Texas", Thomas bridged 19th and 20th century styles, providing the basis for what later became known as Texas blues guitar.
Life and career
Thomas was born into a family of freed slaves in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874 He began traveling the Texas rail lines as a hobo after leaving home in his teens. He eventually earned his way as an itinerant songster, entertaining local populaces as well as railway employees.
Although the circumstances are not known, Thomas recorded twenty-three sides for Vocalion Records between 1927 and 1929. The repertoire on these cuts includes a combination of reels, gospels, minstrel pieces, ragtime numbers and blues. Besides guitar, Thomas accompanied himself on quills, a folk instrument fabricated from cane reeds whose sound is similar to the zampona played by musicians in Peru and Bolivia. His springy guitar-playing, probably inspired by banjo-picking styles, suggests that he performed for dances.
Thomas's legacy has been sustained by his songs, which were revived by musicians beginning in the folk music revival of the early 1960s. Among the first of these was "Honey Won't You Allow Me One More Chance", which was re-interpreted by Bob Dylan on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963 under the title "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance". Dylan probably first heard of the blues musician through Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which ended with one of Thomas's best-known tunes, "Fishin' Blues". Although Dylan re-worked the melody and almost totally re-wrote the lyrics, he credited Thomas as co-writer on the Freewheelin' release.
Thomas's song "Fishin' Blues" was recorded by the US folk-rock group Lovin' Spoonful in 1965, appearing on their hit debut album Do You Believe in Magic?. The song was recorded three years later, in 1968, by blues musician Taj Mahal for one of his first albums, De Old Folks at Home and has since been released on many of Taj Mahal's greatest hits compilations. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also covered the song on their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III in 2002.
"Bull Doze Blues", another of Thomas's Vocalion recordings, remained an obscure blues number until it was picked up by the blues-rock group Canned Heat as the basis for the song "Going Up the Country". Though re-arranged, the Canned Heat song is musically the same, down to a faithful rendition of Thomas's quill solos by Jim Horn. Fellow band member Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson re-wrote the lyrics entirely and received credit on the song's original release in 1968 on Canned Heat's third album, Living the Blues. The next year, the group played at the Woodstock Festival. Their live performance of "Going Up the Country" was featured in the motion picture Woodstock and appeared as the second cut on the soundtrack album.
"Don't Ease Me In" was covered by the Grateful Dead on their album Go to Heaven; and Thomas's vintage recording of "Don't Ease Me In" is included on the compilation album The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead. The Lovin' Spoonful recorded an original song entitled "Henry Thomas" on their 1966 album Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful. In 1993 the band Deacon Blue released a song entitled "Last Night I Dreamed Of Henry Thomas" on their Whatever You Say, Say Nothing album. In addition, his arrangement for "Cottonfield Blues" was performed by early Delta blues musicians Garfield Akers and Mississippi Joe Callicott in 1929.
The whereabouts of Thomas after his last recording in 1929 have not been chronicled. While one report places him in Texas in the 1950s, most biographers indicate he died in 1930 when he would have been in his mid-50s.
- Shadwick, Keith (2001). "Henry Thomas". Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues (1 ed.). Ann Arbor, Michigan: Quintet Publishing, Inc. p. 650. ISBN 1-86155-385-4.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
- Pearson, Barry Lee. "Biography by Barry Lee Pearson". Allmusic.com. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- Johnson, Greg (February 1999). "Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas". BluesNotes (Cascade Blues Association). Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 176. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
- Trager, Oliver (2004). Keys to the Rain. Billboard Books. pp. 256–258. ISBN 0-8230-7974-0.
- Ruhlmann, William. "Lovin' Spoonful: Do You Believe in Magic?". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- Planer, Lindsay. "Taj Mahal: Giant Step". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- Planer, Lindsay. "Taj Mahal: Fishin' Blues". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- Doerschuk, Robert L. "Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-01-29.
- Henry Thomas from the Handbook of Texas Online
- Henry Thomas biography at Allmusic.com
- Illustrated Henry Thomas discography