Happy Monday, folks—we’re here to drive away your Monday Morning Blues—& also to start off a new series that’s going to be running for some time.
The music that we know as the blues sprang up in the southern U.S., tho no one knows exactly where or when. What we do know is that there were blues “centers”—places around which the music seemed to be particularly concentrated & which each had—to some extent at least—regional characteristics in terms of the particular blues “sound.” There was a sound associated with Atlanta & the east coast, & certainly a sound associated with Mississippi, as well as with Memphis & New Orleans, tho those cities also figured in other associated types of music as well—jazz, certainly, but also string band & jug band music. Later, blues became centered in Chicago as blacks migrated out of the south—in many ways, the Chicago blues sound post World War II was an extension of the Mississippi sound, thanks to the Illinois Central Railroad & such Mississippi stalwarts as Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson I, & Muddy Waters all moving there.
But there was another center as well, & one that has in its own right been as fundamental to the blues sound as even Mississippi—& that’s the Lone Star state, Texas. Now when you think of Texas, you may think of cowboys & 10-gallon hats, of Bob Wills & Jerry Jeff Walker. But the fact is that many of the greatest blues musicians also hailed from Texas; so many, in fact, that what was going to be a 10-part series has expanded far past that, & will move in rough chronological order from the oldest “blues” musician we have on record right thru to contemporary electric guitarists.
Henry Thomas—who often recorded under the name “Ragtime Texas” was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas. Given Thomas’ age, we can be pretty sure that he was around to witness the development of the blues from whatever its ultimate sources were, & he is often referred to as a “songster,” meaning that he didn’t specialize in blues, but played in a number of genres. Of course, that’s deceptive, because there’s strong evidence that many early musicians who we think of as playing blues exclusively also played widely in other genres too, but when it came time to record, they were mostly encouraged to draw from their blues repertoire.
In any case, we’re lucky to have Thomas’ music on record, as he disappeared not long after his 1929 sessions, & is presumed to have died in the early 1930s. Between 1927 & 1929, however, he recorded 23 sides for Vocalion.
Probably Thomas’ best-known song is “Fishing Blues,” a double-entendre, slightly ragtime tune that was famously covered by both the Loving Spoonful & Taj Mahal. Thomas’ own version is the final cut on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, & it includes one of Thomas trademarks—his solo on the quills, an African-American instrument that’s essentially a panpipe. A guitarist like Thomas could play the quills while he accompanied himself on guitar with the means of something like a harmonica rack. Although I didn't choose "Fishing Blues" for today's song, it worth a listen for sure. You can find it on YouTube here.
Today’s song doesn’t have the quills, but it may be Thomas’ second best known tune, not so much because of his performance but because it was covered by the Grateful Dead & was a concert staple.
It’s been conjectured that “Don’t Ease Me In” is a close relative to “Alabama Bound,” which was a hit for Papa Charlie Jackson in the mid 20s, & in different forms found its way into the repertoire of such diverse artists as Jelly Rolly Morton & Leadbelly. The Grateful Dead re-wrote some of the lyrics; in the original Thomas sings, “It’s all night long, Cunningham, don’t ease me in,” which is apparently a reference to the owner of a large sugar cane plantation in Sugar Land in Texas, who leased much of his labor from state prison farms.
This is great music! Hope you enjoy it. & stay tuned, because next month there will be a new installment in The Texas Blues.
Photo links to its source