HENRY THOMAS BIOGRAPHY
Henry Thomas (1874-1930) was an American country blues singer, songster and musician. Born in Big Sandy, Texas, he enjoyed a brief recording career in the late 1920s which has latterly been influential. He was often billed as “Ragtime Texas”. His style was an early example of what later became known as Texas blues guitar.
Thomas was born into a family of freed slaves in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874. He began traveling the Texas railroad 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.
He recorded 24 sides for Vocalion Records between 1927 and 1929, 23 of which were released. They include reels, gospel songs, minstrel songs, 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 style of playing guitar was probably derived from banjo-picking styles.
His life and career after his last recordings in 1929 have not been chronicled. Although one report places him in Texas in the 1950s, most biographers indicate he died in 1930, when he would have been 55 or 56 years old.
Thomas’ 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 may have been introduced to Thomas through Harry Smith’s 1952 compilation Anthology of American Folk Music, which includes two of Thomas’ songs, “Old Country Stomp” and “Fishing Blues”. Dylan may have heard Thomas’ song on the 1962 album Henry Thomas Sings the Texas Blues. Although Dylan re-worked the melody and almost totally re-wrote the lyrics, he credited Thomas as co-writer on Freewheelin’.
Thomas’ song “Fishing Blues” was recorded by US folk-rock group The 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’ Vocalion recordings, was reworked by pianist Johnny Miller in 1927 who re-wrote the words and gave it to Wingy Manone who recorded two versions titled “Up the Country” in December 1927 on Columbia and September 1930 on Champion Records. Except in jazz circles, it 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’ 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’ recording of “Don’t Ease Me In” is included on the compilation album The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead.
Thomas’ arrangement of “Cottonfield Blues” was performed by early Delta blues musicians Garfield Akers and Mississippi Joe Callicott in 1929.
In 1966, The Lovin’ Spoonful included an original song entitled “Henry Thomas” on their album Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful. In 1993, the band Deacon Blue included a song entitled “Last Night I Dreamed of Henry Thomas” on their album Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.