Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas was born in Big Sandy, Texas, in 1874, one of nine children of former slaves who sharecropped on a cotton plantation in the northeastern part of the state. Thomas left home around 1890 to pursue a career as an itinerant "songster."
Thomas took to the rails to escape from a life of farm work and made a living by singing along the Texas and Pacific and Katy lines that ran from Fort Worth and Dallas to Texarkana. In a song he wrote called "Railroadin' Some," he includes the Texas towns of Rockwall, Greenville, Denison, Grand Saline, Silver Lake, Mineola, Tyler (where Thomas was last active in the 1950s), Longview, Jefferson, Marshall, Little Sandy, and his birthplace, Big Sandy.
Texas communities are not the only ones cited in this song, for Thomas traveled into the Indian Territory, as he still called it, to Muskogee, over to Missouri and Scott Joplin's stomping grounds of Sedalia, and on up to Kansas City, then into Illinois: Springfield, Bloomington, Joliet, and Chicago, where he attended the 1893 Columbian Exposition, as did Joplin.
William Barlow — author of the book Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture — calls "Railroadin' Some" the most "vivid and intense recollection of railroading" in all the early blues recorded in the 1920s. The cadences in this early rural blues "depict the restless lifestyle of the vagabonds who rode the rails and their boundless enthusiasm for the mobility it gave them."
Thomas first taught himself to play the quills, a type of American panpipe made from cane reeds and similar to the Italian zampogna; later, he picked up the guitar. On the 23 recordings he made from 1927 to 1929, he sings a variety of songs and accompanies himself on guitar and at times on the quills.
His accompaniment work on guitar has been ranked "with the finest dance blues ever recorded." According to American blues writer Stephen Calt, "its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era."
Jazz Journal's Derrick Stewart-Barker commented that Thomas was the best songster "that ever recorded."
The range of Thomas's work makes him something of a transitional figure between the early minstrel songs, spirituals, square dance tunes, hillbilly reels, waltzes, and rags and the rise of blues and jazz. Basically his repertoire, which mostly consists of dance pieces, was out of date by the turn of the century, when the blues began to grow in popularity. Thomas's nickname, "Ragtime Texas," is thought to have come to him because he played in fast tempos, which were synonymous for some musicians with ragtime. Five of Thomas's pieces have been characterized as "rag ditties," among them "Red River Blues," and such rag songs have been considered the immediate forerunners and early rivals of blues.
Out of Thomas's recorded pieces, only four are "bona fide blues," so that he has been looked upon as more of a predecessor rather than a blues singer as such. One commentator has claimed that Thomas's blues are original with him and that other musicians seem not to have performed his pieces. However, Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues" ends with the four bar "Take Me Back," a Texas standard of the World War I era, which Blind Lemon Jefferson had recorded around August 1926 as "Beggin' Back." It would seem, then, that Thomas's blues represent many traditional themes and vocal phrases. For example, Thomas's "Texas Easy Street Blues" contains the verse made famous by Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams in their 1930s to 1950s versions of the Basie-Rushing tune, "Goin' to Chicago." Another well known phrase found in this same Thomas piece is "blue as I can be." But perhaps most indicative of Thomas's transitional position between the early black music and jazz is his "Cottonfield Blues," which contains several standard blues themes: field labor, the desire for escape, and the role of the railroad in providing a freer lifestyle.
The importance of Thomas's recordings as something of a compendium of the popular song forms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—from spiritual to "coon song," from "rag" song to blues—is enhanced by the similar range of instrumental techniques found in his work with guitar and quills. In a sense, then, Henry Thomas represents a vital link between the roots of music in Africa, nineteenth and twentieth century American folksong (including spiritual, hillbilly, "rag," and "coon"), and the coming of the blues—all of these contributing in turn to the formation of jazz in its various forms, which are reflected in the varied approaches to rhythmic, tonal, and thematic expression practiced by "Ragtime Texas" decades before he made his series of recordings from 1927 to 1929.
Singer-songwriter Norman Blake, on his 1998 "Chattanooga Sugar Babe" record, includes a song he wrote for Thomas.
A resurgence of fascination with Thomas can be traced roughly to 1952. In that year, two of his finest performances, "Fishing Blues" and "Old Country Stomp," were reissued on Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology, featuring American folk music in the best sense of the word as represented on pre-War commercial discs and unified by an inspired logic, brought Thomas and his music to the attention of Northern, urban, folk revival audiences for the first time.
By way of the Anthology, Thomas’ music captured the fertile imaginations of the likes of Bob Dylan, and Alan Wilson of Canned Heat. In 1968, Canned Heat converted Thomas’ "Bull Doze Blues" into the hit "Going Up the Country" complete with Thomas' basic rhythm and melody and with multi-instrumentalists Jim Horn reproducing Thomas' quill parts on the flute.
Dylan, on his 1962 "Freewheelin’" record, sang a composition entitled "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance." While not a straight cover of the Thomas performance of a similar name, it utilizes some of the same phrases and Dylan freely acknowledges the influence of “a recording by a now-dead Texas blues singer.”
Thomas’ most enduring tune is his "Fishing Blues," a song with minstrel show origins that has become something of a standard in old-time and blues circles, covered by artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, and Bruce Molsky.
His legacy lives on in the music of those who continue to sing his praises and perform his songs — songs that may well have been lost if not for the creative impulses of an obscure musical itinerant.
"Bull Doze Blues" by Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas
"Fishin' Blues" with Taj Mahal
Texas State Historical Association, The Old-Time Herald