Monday, October 3, 2011

Poor Boy Long Way From Home #4 – Ramblin’ Thomas

Good day!  It appears Monday has caught up with us again—but don’t worry: we’ll be driving your Monday blues away with a great tune on Robert Frost’s Banjo.

This week the Poor Boy Blues series continues, & this may be my favorite installment of the 12 posts I have planned.  In fact, for my money, the Ramblin’ Thomas of “Poor Boy Blues” is a really magical two & a half minutes of music, & ranks up there with any song from its period, in whatever tradition. 

Ramblin’ Thomas was born Willard Thomas in Logansport, Louisiana in 1902.  Not a lot is known of his biography, tho the fact that his younger brother, Jesse “Babyface” Thomas was “re-discovered” in the 1970s (& lived until 1995) did fill in some gaps about his life.  We know that Ramblin’ Thomas moved to the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas sometime in the late 1920s, & that his considerable travels also brought him to Chicago & other points in the midwest.  He recorded 16 of his existing 20 sides in Chicago in 1928 during two separate sessions for Paramount—the first was in February, the second in November.  The fact that Paramount brought him back for a second session suggests that they considered his material to be commercially viable.  He also recorded four songs for Victor in Dallas in 1932.

“Poor Boy Blues” dates from the second Paramount session: it was the “B” side for his “Ramblin’ Man.”  The song was included on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music on volume 3, “Songs.” 

When you hear “Poor Boy Blues,” you may get a sense of why there’s still debate over whether Willars Thomas’ nickname came from his hoboing ways or the fact that he had a very individual sense of timing in his music.  He plays “Poor Boy” as a rubato (freely timed) recitative, with his voice rising on falling above the spare slide background, which mostly doubles the vocal melody.  Tho this type of accompaniment is rare these days, doubling the vocal melody with the accompanying instrument was quite common in old-time music, whether it was "blues" or "hillbilly."  Thomas also comes up with an effective slide solo on the mid-range guitar strings.  Otherwise, he chords sparsely (& there really are no true chord changes in the song, which is played in  open D or E (I’ve never checked which—the intervals between the strings are the same in either case
—this is the so-called Vestapol”tuning.)  I’ve read that he’s playing this song lap style, & have also read that he played “knife blues,” in other words, using a knife rather than a bottleneck or a metal tube as a slide. 

Hope you enjoy this truly great version of “Poor Boy Blues.”


  1. Cool! A very intimate feel to this one, almost like he was recorded sitting on the porch and just noodling around.

  2. Hi Roy: Well put--I think that feel is one reason I like it so well. Thanks!

  3. There's also a wistfulness to the performance, a reflectiveness afforded, maybe, by there being no movement from the single chord and the precision of the slide work following the vocal line. A bit of a jewel, this one, John.

  4. Hi Dick: Yes, definitely wistfulness! It is a jewel indeed--thanks for stopping by!


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