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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

"Ragtime Texas"
Henry Thomas

by Clay Coppedge
One afternoon in 1949 as Mack McCormick was waiting for a light to change in downtown Houston he spied a very tall, odd-looking man with a weird, elongated head wearing a bunch of ragged coats and carrying a guitar. For whatever reason, the 19-year old budding musicologist just had to know who that man was.

McCormick, who died in November of 2015 at age 85, caught up with the man a few blocks away and started asking him questions. The man was friendly enough, but McCormick understood little of what he said - something about making some records a long time ago, riding a freight train into town and sleeping under a bridge.

The man played a little guitar for McCormick, but the guitar was out of tune, the strings were dead and the lyrics indecipherable. He also played a homemade instrument that he held in his mouth. It looked to McCormick a little like a kazoo.

None of it made any sense, but there was something about the man that intrigued McCormick and forced him to ask the two questions that he spent the rest of his life trying to answer: where did blues music begin and why did it begin there?

In the course of his life's work, McCormick "discovered" blues guitarists Lightning Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, two old Texas bluesmen who played and wailed the blues before anybody knew what to call it. But he continued seeking out the identity of the old man with the weird head because he thought the answer might get him closer to the origin of the blues. He also became similarly obsessed with some records from the 1920s by a singer named "Ragtime Texas" Henry Thomas.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874, or thereabouts, in Upshur County near Big Sandy, Texas, the son of former slaves turned sharecroppers. Thomas hated the cotton fields with a passion, and he was little more than a boy when he left home to ride the rails as a hobo - a "songster" who earned his keep by entertaining people along the train line with the songs he learned growing up in Big Sandy.

But Thomas was no rube. He applied the moniker "Ragtime Texas" to his name to take advantage of ragtime music's popularity. He called a lot of his songs blues - like "Fishin' Blues" and "Bull Doze Blues" - but they weren't blues in the way people think of blues today. It wasn't true ragtime music either, though it surely provided the rootstock.

Still, when McCormick heard the 23 songs that Thomas recorded on Vocalion Records between 1927 and 1929, when Thomas was in his 50s, he felt like he was a step closer to the birth of the blues.

Thomas' songs represent the oldest traditions of American black music ever recorded, and include a heavy dose of songs and influences from white musicians like Uncle Dave Macon along with story songs, work calls, stomps and hollers. America was a segregated country, but musicians were color blind. Whites and blacks shared their music with each other, adapting and passing it along to the next generation of musicians, who then arranged it to their own purposes.

In addition to the guitar, Thomas played the quills - panpipes, like the thing we always see the goat-god Pan playing. Thomas wrapped them together so he could play the quills and the guitar at the same time. That's probably what McCormick mistook for a kazoo when he met the old man in Houston. In the hands of someone who knows what to do with them, the quills sound a little like a flute, or a high-pitched whistle.

McCormick spent years tracking down Ragtime Texas Henry Thomas, finding old folks who knew him and remembered his music and, finally, a family Bile that documented Thomas' birth in Upshur County in 1878.

By the time McCormick put together an anthology of Thomas' work in 1975 a new generation of musicians had already discovered Thomas on their own. Bob Dylan, the Lovin' Spoonfull, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Canned Heat and others released their own versions of Henry Thomas songs in the 60s and 70s. Some of them even credited him.

In the course of his research, McCormick found a small picture and a drawing of Thomas in old newspaper ads. The man in the picture looked a whole lot like the tall hobo with the guitar and the elongated head that had so intrigued McCormick back in Houston in 1949.

Though he could never be sure and he couldn't prove it to history's satisfaction, McCormick believed that, ultimately, his search for the beginning of the blues, began and, for the most part, concluded with the same man - Ragtime Texas Henry Thomas.

As for where and when blues music actually began, that remains a mystery.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 5, 2016 column

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