The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 6

Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas: The Enduring Appeal of a Texas Songster
By Daniel Fleck
Henry Thomas:
Jonah in the Wilderness

Where the Texas Pacific Railroad ran through cotton gin towns
The lumber mills and the peach orchards used to stretch for miles around
He’d change cars on the Katy ‘cause he didn’t know where he’s bound
With his ragged clothes and old guitar he’d walk right through their towns

And they called him Ragtime Texas, Henry Thomas was his name
From Deep Ellum down in Dallas to the Texarkana cane
Kansas City to Saint Louis, Chicago in the rain
He’s on his way but he didn’t know where, just a-ridin’ on a train

His daddy sharecropped cotton in East Texas bottom land
He became a drifter before he was a man
Playing country dances, the cane quills he blowed
Then he found an old guitar and a hard life on the road

Down to cruel Huntsville prison farm they run him on in
He never knew from day to day if he had a friend
In the boxcars and the migrant camps, on the sidewalks of the town
He seen all them hard traveling men, on their last go ‘round

- Norman Blake, “Ragtime Texas”

The foregoing song by Norman Blake, from his 1998 Chattanooga Sugar Babe record, besides being a delightful bit of folk poetry, illustrates well the enduring appeal of and continued fascination with Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas. Thomas, an African-American Texas “songster,” recorded twenty-three commercial sides in the late 1920s before fading into obscurity. The resurgence of fascination with Thomas can be traced roughly to 1952. In that year, two of his finest performances, "Fishing Blues" and "Old Country Stomp," were reissued on Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology, featuring American folk music in the best sense of the word as represented on pre-War commercial discs and unified by an inspired logic, brought Thomas and his music to the attention of Northern, urban, folk revival audiences for the first time. By way of the Anthology, Thomas’ music captured the fertile imaginations of the likes of Bob Dylan, and Alan Wilson of Canned Heat. In 1968, Canned Heat converted Thomas’ "Bull Doze Blues" into the hit "Going up the Country" while Dylan, on his 1962 Freewheelin’ record, sang a composition entitled "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance." While not a straight cover of the Thomas performance of a similar name, it utilizes some of the same phrases and Dylan freely acknowledges the influence of “a recording by a now-dead Texas blues singer.” Thomas’ most enduring tune is his "Fishing Blues," a song with minstrel show origins that has become something of a standard in old-time and blues circles, covered by artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, and Bruce Molsky. His legacy lives on in the music of those who continue to sing his praises and perform his songs -- songs that may well have been lost if not for the creative impulses of an obscure musical itinerant.

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