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Henry Thomas

If I had been around when old blues guys like Henry Thomas were in their heyday, I suppose I wouldn’t have gone to hear them play. Surely that world would have been—was—closed to a not-wealthy white lady such as myself. And I most likely wouldn’t have made the effort. I don’t go, never did, to a lot of live music. Never seen Chuck Berry or Little Richard or B. B. King, who soon will be gone, and that opportunity lost.

Henry Thomas (1874-1930) was born in Texas into a family of freed slaves and recorded (some say originated) “Texas blues guitar” in the 1920s, playing reels, gospel, ragtime, and blues. He was a hobo who earned a living singing to railway employees and in towns he passed through. His two dozen songs were recorded in the 1920s.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that attracts me so much about him when a lot of similar singers don’t. His songs have catchy melodies and brilliant lyrics that often rework common motifs: “She bring me coffee, she bring me tea, she bring me everything but the jailhouse key,” a line that turns up in two nearly identical songs of his. I like the contrast between his rough voice and the sweet pipes he plays, which I have learned are called quills and made from cane reeds, similar to the zampona or panpipes of Peru and Bolivia. The quills, it seems, are an old African instrument, pretty much unknown today.

Several of his songs have been recorded by others: “Fishing Blues” by Taj Mahal and the Loving Spoonful; “Honey Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance” by Bob Dylan (as “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”); and “Bull-Doze Blues” by Canned Heat as their Woodstock hit “Going Up the Country” with different lyrics but the same music, down to the sound of the quills (but played on a flute).

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