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Henry Thomas: One More Chance

The back story to so many blues players seems similar. Most spent time ramblin’ around and hitchin’ rides on trains, wondering from town to city and back again. There’s rarely a good way by which to track any of these folks – and a great many of them eventually just disappeared. There’s always speculation and surely any major name in American music has been investigated, family members sought out, et cetera. This can all be applied to Henry Thomas. However, Thomas was roughly twenty years older than any other pre-World War II blues player – and due to his vintage he’s frequently referred to as things other than a bluesman. He was perhaps born as early as 1874.

Raised for a time by his parents in Texas, Thomas’ family were former slaves and sharecroppers. That life, understandably, didn’t look too good to the guitarist and he left home while still a teen. It’s speculated that Thomas was able to make his way to St. Louis and Chicago to perform at a few World’s Fairs, but again, there’s not a whole buncha documented proof of that either. And while Thomas rode around Texas, hopping from train to train, he cemented a song book that reached back to the nineteenth century and incorporated minstrel songs, popular ballads, blues and a few rag time tunes.

His playing – which I’ve seen compared to banjo strumming – possesses the same jangly quality that made the Carter Family such a powerful group. The strummed chords constantly chiming in tandem with his deep tenor voice made for full arrangements. But what makes Thomas even more of a singular player is his utilization of the pan pipe – something akin to flutes used in South American countries like Brazil. Apart from this individualistic use of a wind instrument, though, Thomas simply sounds like a prototypical blues man. And while the guitarist was keenly aware of the need to incorporate a wide swath of music into his repertoire, his recordings, made up of twenty three tracks set down between 1927 and 1929, served to influence latter generations of folk and blues players.

The litany of covers that resulted from the scant twenty three songs represented on Complete Recorded Works (1927-29) even found a place on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Having “Fishing Blues” and “Old Country Stomp” included on the landmark compilation lent new life to his renown. And as a result, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Canned Heat amongst others reworked some tunes from the Thomas song book. As seamlessly as these players would be able to incorporate the songs into their own performances, it just further proves that American folk music is a breathing organism. Having Dylan re-imagine “Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance” for his second album connected the Minnesota native to a Texas blues tradition which was and remains tied to work from the days of slavery.

Thomas might not be Blind Lemon on guitar, but his interesting compositions and accompaniment make any track that he recorded as important as sides from Jefferson or any other country styled player.