Born 140 years ago in Big Sandy, Texas to freed slaves, but never a man with a permanent home or to be settled long Henry Thomas is the forgotten foundation of the origination of the blues and folk idioms that have so defined popular song forms in the late 20th and 21st centuries
It's very likely you've heard him, but it's equally as unlikely you know him. His "Bulldoze Blues" is the warble of Woodstock; sidemouth sung by Al "Blind Owl" Wilson's Canned Heat under a guise of “Going Up the Country”, his “Don't Ease Me In” a bad acid come down live staple proffered by Jerry Garcia et al, his “Fishing Blues” rendered Sesame Street by John Sebastian's Loving Spoonful. Most poignantly his "Honey Won't You Allow Me One More Chance" appears on Bob Dylan's first LP, with Thomas receiving co-writer credit.
His life an undocumented mystery, what is known of Thomas with any certainty is that he spent his time as a hobo, floating through the reconstruction era southlands and East Texas, performing a full 17 years before Charley Patton and leaving a ghost like affect on the musical landscape that post-ceded his death. With his tunes serving as a link between 19th and 20th century popular forms, Thomas is one of the earliest recorded practitioners of African-American Music.
The 23 sides he cut for Vocalion between 1927-1929 serve as the only definable audio quantity of his contributions to the American Songbook. The traditional dance forms of these tunes blend with plaintive biblical yearnings, speaking of the varied experience of the itinerant at the turn of the century. Its somewhat fitting that Thomas recorded these sides only a few years before his death, as they can be seen as truly a life's work.
Thomas's unique sound is articulated through the voicing of the quills- an African pan-flute instrument used as melody, while his high-capo'd guitar serves as a primarily rhythmic accompaniment; his voice all the while driving high and clear between the two. You can hear the direct influence of Thomas on Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and John Hurt alike. The folkloric traditions of Mississippi hill country Fife and Drum bands serve as a modern view into this sound, as does the interpretations of such groups as the Durham, NC based Carolina Chocolate Drops.
His legacy a direct beneficiary of the curatorial brilliance of Harry Smith's The Anthology of American Folk Music, Henry Thomas has somehow reemerged as the subject of reissue campaigns in 2013 by the reinvigorated Yazoo label, Texas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 (originally a 1989 release), and Mississippi/Little Axe, Bull Doze Blues. The Yazoo set serves as a chronological compendium while the grey-area Mississippi/Little Axe set reads as a loving mixtape of the compilers' favorite tunes. Both sound excellent considering the age and condition of the few remaining 78s used for mastering.
Worth seeking out as a historical connection between eras or as simply as the work of an excellent songwriter, Thomas's music stands as timeless; a sturdy thread in the fabric of the great American experience and an African-American voice sparkling from an era frequently less acknowledged with the passage of time.