Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.
Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas. His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar. Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar. Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player. Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter. He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style. At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both. Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released. He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two. Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song. Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee. Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity. Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.
Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar. Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape. I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see). If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).
First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.
On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.
Updated with improved audio on February 21, 2023.