Thomas was born in East Texas in 1874, and set out to seek his fortune–if fortune means luck, not money–little more than 10 years later, as a railroad bum living off women and music, taking the train-name “Ragtime Texas.” He was already a professional by the time he played the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. As the son of former slaves, growing up before the post-slavery black culture had taken shape, Thomas more than any other black musician recorded was able to make the early forms of black music that had developed before the Civil War a natural part of his repertoire. This included story songs, fables, work calls, and cautionary tales with animals instead of people as characters: a whole communal tradition of entertainment and instruction in which the “I,” the artist’s act of self-assertion and self-affirmation, is missing–and a tradition in which Thomas’s role in life, the black man on his own in the world, was not anticipated. But at the same time, in the 1880s, ’90s, and early 1900s, new traditions in black music–jazz, blues, ragtime–were emerging in response to just such roles as Thomas’s, to just such new mobility and loosening of communal bonds, and Thomas was part of this too. Thus he sings not about but from the ancient, half-forgotten community–yet he also sings as a modem man, a bluesman, a singer less of a community than addressing himself to it.
The old tradition was one mostly of acceptance and safe-keeping, the new of revolt and taking chances. In Thomas’s music the traditions are all mixed up. His songs are composites of rags, gospel, narratives, ballads, dance calls, blues, stomps, and hollers. Still, the old predominates. Fred McDowell “did not play no rock and roll” and Henry Thomas did not play no tragic blues. He was on his own in the world–if you don’t count those women who helped support him–but unlike Skip James or Robert Johnson, who learned their music decades after Thomas, he did not take a stand against it. Thus the “I” in his music is present, but marginal. In addition, he was a journeyman, not a genius. He could, in the best and most accomplished sense, be any one singing; his concept of music likely had little room for any other way of thinking about what he did, regardless of how many song contests he won.
That Thomas was able to find commercial success in the ’20s with music that was, formally anyway, at least 50 years out of date, speaks both for his strong, vital delivery, for nostalgia for an older world on the part of many Southern blacks, and for an anomaly in the recording industry of the time. Lots of people sang the kind of music Thomas did, including many we know solely as bluesmen, but blues was hot and few record companies wanted to record much of anything else from blacks. That Thomas was able to mix what is generally considered white material with black is a further anomaly–but again, only because Thomas was able to get that mix down on record in an extensive way. Black and white music in the South in the first part of this century was less separate than shared, but the singers recorded in the ’20s and ’30s were almost always kept to a strict black-or-white program. Companies thought in terms of demographics, not mass acceptance. Because a company could make money with sales of a few thousand records, they aimed their “hillbilly” and “race” product solely at specialized audiences.
So we can say that Henry Thomas offers a remarkable picture, unique in its range and depth, of music old and modern, black and white, What makes him of more than scholarly interest is that his music is, today, so much fun to listen to. It is good-time music, with rough, forceful singing, fast and crude guitar work, and utterly wonderful pan-pipe playing (ads for his records called this “whistling,” which does not begin to do it justice). It is easy to imagine that what set Thomas off from hundreds of men like him was his ability to communicate his delight both at the pleasure his music gave him and at the pleasure his music gave whoever was listening.
Mack McCormick’s notes to Henry Thomas’s recordings deserve special notice. McCormick’ met Thomas on the street 27 years ago, when the man was very old and could hardly play or sing, and when McCormick had no idea of who he was. His exhaustive consideration of Thomas’s life, his music, and the traditions out of which he worked are full of the passion one might expect such a chance encounter, or missed chance, to inspire. They are the best notes of their kind I have ever read: literate, wide-ranging, deeply scholarly but never pedantic, sensitive to ambiguity in both facts and interpretation–in themselves a first-rate introduction to the pre-blues and blues traditions of the country South. I hereby nominate them for the Grammy they won’t get.
Village Voice, Jan 12, 1976