By Mike Greenblatt
Who is Henry Thomas? Up until the 2014 Blues Images Calendar (www.bluesimages.com), few knew what the bluesman looked like. One listen to his 1928 recording of “Bull Doze Blues” (Vocalion 1230), which leads off the calendar’s accompanying CD, and longtime blues and rock fans alike will instantly recognize the vocal, the chords and even the pan pipe solo, which Canned Heat duplicated note for note 40 years later on “Going Up The Country” (Liberty 56077), the ’60s California boogie band’s huge hit single.
For an itinerant hobo born in 1874 in Texas and who died somewhere in 1930, who rode the rails and only recorded a handful of songs (23 in all) between 1927 and 1929 for Vocalion, Thomas had a profound effect upon the generation weaned on Bob Dylan. Dylan, in fact, borrowed Henry’s “Honey, Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance” (Vocalion 1141) on his breakthrough album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, as “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance.” Other notable Henry Thomas recordings include “Fishing Blues” (which Taj Mahal popularized some 40 years later), “Cotton Field Blues,” “Run Molly Run,” “Little Red Caboose” and “Don’t Ease Me In” (covered by the Grateful Dead). Rock band Deacon Blue recorded a song in 1993 called “Last Night I Dreamed Of Henry Thomas.” John Sebastian, while in The Lovin’ Spoonful, wrote and recorded a song called “Henry Thomas” in 1966 to pay homage to this long-lost and shrouded-in-mystery bluesman. There are those who claim they saw Thomas perform on the streets and in the bars of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. There is no available information on his death.
The Canned Heat version of “Bulldoze Blues,” as “Going Up The Country,” went to No. 1 in 25 countries around the world in 1968. Canned Heat’s version is credited to Alan Wilson, who sang it, likely so the band could reap the publishing monies. But it is likely Canned Heat’s members were aware of the source, as they were blues musicologists. John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records knew them personally.
“They were heavy-duty record collectors,” he remembers. “Whenever they would travel, they’d spend their off hours at jukebox operators and used record stores, trying to dig up anything they could find. They would amass huge amounts of records that they would ship back to their [Los Angeles] home from all over the country. They told me a story one time of buying crates and crates of rare old blues from a place called Buckley’s in Nashville (a place in Tennessee since the 1940s that I bought music at after it moved to Kentucky). Anyway, they left the crates in their hotel in the care of a roadie, who took off with every single last record! That roadie then disappeared forever. The boys in the band were lamenting how many great sides they lost in one fell swoop! One of the guys in the band, Richard Hite, wound up moving to Memphis to ‘live the blues,’ as he used to say, and that’s when we got real close, staying up late many a night listening to records. He was a real character. He could put away three whole pizzas at one sitting.”
Hite died in 2001. His lead-singer brother, Bob “The Bear” Hite, died in 1981. Alan Wilson died in 1970, joining the long list of rock stars who died at the age of 27. The band continues to tour today with three members whose tenure dates back to the 1960s: Larry “The Mole” Taylor, Fito de la Parra and Harvey Mandel.
If you’re curious how Henry Thomas’ originals compare with the remakes by later artists (or want to see if you recognize any of Thomas’ other licks, riffs or lyrics in modern music), check out Yazoo Records’ best-of disc “Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929.” It includes most of Thomas’ pioneering performances and is more affordable than one of Thomas’ Vocalion releases, which sell for anywhere between a couple hundred dollars and a couple thousand dollars, depending upon condition, according to online auction results at Popsike.com. GM