One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”. One of the earliest born rural black musicians to record (though probably not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was purported to have been born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.
Research by the late Mack McCormick uncovered that Henry Thomas was said to have been born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas (which in spite of its name is neither big nor particularly sandy), one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves. In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster. He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer. Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing. Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes. His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”. On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way. He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more. His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively. In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released. Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929. Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known. Many sources claim that he died in 1930, however evidence has recently surfaced that he was still active in Chicago as late as 1931, and Mack McCormick claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and others around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s. Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.
Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois. It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.
On the “A” side, Thomas sings and blows his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man and diverting from the standard versions with some unique verses that one might speculate were at least partly autobiographical, dropping the titular character’s forename in favor of his last, conveniently matching to that of the eponymous hobo (i.e. “Henry got a letter, said his mother was dead, put his children on a passenger train; he gonna ride the blind.”)
Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”. Unusual and esoteric as Thomas’s music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it. It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!
Updated on April 25, 2021.