By Mike Greenblatt
“When you see me comin,’ don’t call my name/
Tell me mama, what the matter now?
When you see me comin,’ hike your window high/
Got the Texas blues, blue as I can be/
When you see me runnin,’ something goin’ on wrong/
I’m goin’ back to Texas, sit on Easy Street.”
The last time we checked in on Henry Thomas [1874-1930], he was singin’ ‘bout them 1928 “Bulldoze Blues” which Canned Heat turned into “Goin’ Up The Country” in 1968. On “Texas Easy Street Blues”— recorded on June 13, 1928, during his third Vocalion session — the itinerant hobo wants to head back to his native Texas and just sit and watch the world go by. He did a lot of that. Riding the rails, playing for chump change in the street, Henry Thomas, in his rare handful of professional recordings (23 songs) between 1927 and 1929 for Vocalion, made enough of a name for himself that no less than Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Grateful Dead and John Sebastian were fans. Dylan even appropriated a Henry Thomas song for his breakthrough “Freewheelin’” album, “Honey, Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance.” Taj did “Fishin’ Blues” 40 years after the fact. The Dead did “Don’t Ease Me In.” Sebastian wrote and recorded a song called “Henry Thomas” about this most mysterious fellow. We do know he was born in Big Sandy, Texas, played in the streets of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. Moved around a lot. Wrote a lot of train lyrics. His last known recording session was in 1929, just months before his death at the age of 56 in parts unknown.
“All of this man’s records are extremely rare,” confirms John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “The only one that shows up fairly consistently is “Cotton Field Blues b/w John Henry.”
Even Tefteller, who has been known to spend thousands on one song, does not own this one. He once tried to buy it on eBay but lost out in the waning seconds of the sale. He still regrets it to this day, and when he thinks of how he could have had it for under $900 (it’s worth about three grand today), that fact alone still gives him a headache. “It’s the only time that ever happened,” he admits.
“Henry Thomas had a real happy-go-lucky nature to his songs that have stood the test of time,” Tefteller continues. “He wrote catchy melodies. Yazoo Records put out a best-of just a few years ago that’s still in print.
“I first heard Henry Thomas years ago on the Dr. Demento radio show back when I was a teenager. Then, when I grew up to be close personal friends with Canned Heat, they would always be talking about him and finally — upon me asking — played me more and I just fell in love with the guy. I tried to buy one of his records from them but they wouldn’t part with it.”
One of the reasons that the song sounds so clean with less surface noise than those usually associated with recorded songs of that era is because it comes direct from the label. Every label has a “file copy” for their records or if they want to re-release it. It’s the cleanest sound you could possibly obtain, as it is lifted direct from the master recording. This one is almost pristine in its presentation. It is only one of 24 such songs from that long-ago and far-away era on the accompanying CD to the 2015 Blues Images calendar.
And you can dance to it.