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Author Topic: Henry Thomas  (Read 10074 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Henry Thomas
« on: March 30, 2005, 10:36:16 PM »
Hi all,
I have been listening a lot to Henry Thomas lately, and I think he was just great--so great that I want to talk about him.? There's a lot you could talk about, too:? His choice of material and its cross-over with Old Time repertoire, his music as dance music, his guitar-playing, etc.
I have been focusing a lot on his tunes with quills (panpipes).? Of his 23 recorded titles in the period 1927-1929, nine featured quills in addition to guitar accompaniment and vocals.?
?* John Henry
?* The Fox and the Hounds
?* Red River Blues
?* Little Red Caboose
?* Bull Doze Blues
?* Fishing Blues
?* Old Country Stomp
?* Charmin' Betsy
?* Railroadin' Some
For all but two of these numbers, Henry Thomas was capoed up, playing in standard tuning out of the D position, sounding about concert G# (capoed at the sixth fret).? "The Fox and the Hounds" moves back and forth between D position at that pitch and G position.? "Railroadin' Some" is the only tune played solely in the G position (though it modulates to D position right at the end).?
For convenience's sake, if you think of the quills as being in D, since the guitar is being played out of a D position, they are set up in a major pentatonic scale of:
?I--II--III--V--VI--I.? If you plug these scale degrees into the D scale you get:
?D--E--F#--A--B--D.? This pentatonic scale has a beautiful, almost Asian-sounding quality, and differs from the so-called Blues scale as follows.? The Blues scale is:
?I--flatIII--IV--V--flatVII--I, or in D, D--F--G--A--C--D.?
Interestingly, the same grouping of notes Henry Thomas used would, in fact, give you a Blues scale in the key of VI if you ran it from VI to VI rather than from I to I, but Henry Thomas never employed the quills that way on his recordings. Instead, he chose to stick with the major pentatonic possibilities.

? Since quills are hard to come by or make if you don't know how, you may wish to substitute harmonica for quills in your own performances of these tunes.? Cross harp works well for the blues scale because you have heavy bent draws to get the flat three and flat seven notes, but since neither of those notes is in Henry Thomas's scale on the quills, straight harp sounds better for these tunes, because you will end up getting a purer sound on the melody notes.
? Henry Thomas's version of "John Henry" uses a quill melody at the beginning of the performance that bears no relation to any version of "John Henry" I have heard before, but once he settles in, he alternates beautifully between the verse melody and the refrain melody.? His version is also one of the very few I have heard by a Country Blues player that is not performed in Vastapol tuning.
? "The Fox and the Hounds" is unusual for its modulation to the key of IV.? Like most "Fox Hunt" type tunes, it has a programmatic element.? One interesting thing about the modulation, is that in the IV key, G, Henry Thomas strongly emphasizes the third of the IV chord, B.? Well, B is also the VI note of the parent key, D, and as it turns out the B on the quills is in tune in the key of D, but distinctly sharp in the key of G.? This makes me think that perhaps there is no such thing as tempered tuning on quills--they are really only in tune in one key.
? "Red River Blues" is a 16-bar blues with I and V chords only, an archetype I have not encountered before.? Moreover, Henry Thomas changes the chord progression as he goes along, using lots of subtle variations, all of which sound good.
?"Little Red Caboose" he plays as a one-chorder, although there is a place where the melody hangs on the II note where it really sounds like it wants to go to a V chord.? This tune is a good candidate for the "Hearing Chord Changes" thread.
?"Bull Doze Blues" is the source for the beautiful flute melody interlude on Canned Heat's recording of "Goin' Up The Country".? I've been kind of obsessed with this melody recently, and if I may say so, it is perfection, and that is rarely encountered.? The melody is a kind of marvel of rhythmic placement and phrasing--in its 12 bars, it never once lands on either the first or third beat of the measure.? As a result, it is the opposite of square, and has this great kind of shadow-boxing or counter-punching quality.? The range of the melody is an octave and a fourth and it uses the following notes:
?V--VI--I--II--III--V--VI--I
If you wanted to arrange the melody for guitar, in Spanish tuning, the melodic span would be from the open fourth string to the fifth fret of the first string.? In Vastapol, the melodic span would be from the open second string to the 12th fret of the first string.
?"Fishing Blues" is just about as pretty as "Bull Doze", and after hearing so many versions of this song where it sounds like the singer is trying to win some kind of cuteness competition it is a real tonic to hear Henry Thomas's straight-forward version.
?On "Old Country Stomp", Henry does some dance calls, and he sure sounds like he played for a lot of dances.? This one has a moment of magic in the quills part--he's casting about, trying to find something by the sound of it, and then he puts it together.? The melody he ends up with is so strong and rhythmic, he just rides it on out to the end of the tune.
?"Charmin' Betsy" sounds like another dance tune.? His timing and execution of his guitar accompaniment is stellar.? He has this way of lifting his left hand for the fourth beat of the measure and just strumming the open strings, which in the key he's playing, implies a IV chord.? I have to work out some of this stuff for Port Townsend.
?"Railroadin' Some" is more of a vamp tune, evoking a ride on a train.? If you listen to it carefully, it's also kind of a geography lesson.? You can get out a road atlas and follow along with the station stops he calls out.? Playing out of a G position, Henry bends the V note of G (D) repeatedly, to evoke the train's whistle.? The ending seems like he just had to get back to D position where the quills are really in tune.
Apart from Henry Thomas's tunes, I only know of a couple more that employed quills.? Big Boy Cleveland did "Quill Blues", Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith did "Old Devil's Dream" on a recording collected by Alan Lomax in Mississippi.? I know "Old Devil's Dream" is on the Juke.
I am strongly pre-disposed toward pre-Blues material anyway, but I think that the recordings Henry Thomas did are amazingly good.? I'm hard put to think of other musicians of his era and style who recorded so many great melodies.? Once again, it is odd to think how lucky we are that a commercial record company chose to record so many titles of someone so far off the beaten path of the popular music of his era.? Henry Thomas was great!
All best,
Johnm
Edited to add:  I remembered, incorrectly, that "Jim and John", from the same Alan Lomax collection mentioned above, was a quills piece.  In fact, it was performed on fife, by Ed Young, and Lonnie young, Sr., and Lonnie Young, Jr. on drums, a la Otha Turner.  It is a great number, too.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2005, 08:59:03 AM by Johnm »

Offline Cleoma

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Henry Thomas
« Reply #1 on: March 31, 2005, 09:56:28 AM »
I've always wondered if Henry Thomas was perhaps a banjo player too, certainly his repertoire, and also the way he  "knocks" the guitar, reminds me of oldtime banjo playing.  I know that  Memphis Minnie started out on banjo, and I wonder about the connection between G tuning on the guitar and banjo tuning (tho Henry Thomas sounds to me to be in standard tuning).
Also, besides the Document CD, the exact same stuff is on a Yazoo CD, 1080/1, and I would guess that sound quality is better on the Yazoo CD.  The Document ones often are pretty funky. 
John, perhaps we should explore some of this material as fiddle/guitar duet at PT?  Henry Thomas is such a great overlap between oldtime dance music, tin pan alley, and early blues.  I love "Won't you allow me one more chance, I'll take you to the ball in France".  I'm in the middle of reading the recent bio of Django, and the ball in France would have been quite something at the time this song was recorded!
Suzy T.

Offline dj

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2005, 10:03:14 AM »
The Henry Thomas CD on Document is one of their more recent ones, where they've paid more attention to remastering.  The sound quality is excellent.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2005, 10:35:19 AM »
Hi Suzy,
I would absolutely be up for doing some Henry Thomas for the fiddle/guitar workshop at Port Townsend.  I think he's a natural for that treatment.  I will be ready to go.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2005, 04:23:50 PM »
Good topic, John. Henry Thomas was someone it took me a little while to get into, perhaps because his music was one of the first things I bought from Yazoo back when and it didn't seem "guitaristic" enough or something. I've come to my senses and love his stuff now. There are so many tremendous melodies in his material, both in his singing and on the quills. I love his tendency towards medleys as well. "Arkansas" is one of my favorites. Not a quills tune but great singing. "Don't Leave Me Here" is another one I could listen to over and over. Just wonderful singing.

I'm curious as to what you make of his guitar-playing. Despite my youthful ignorance re. this not being guitaristic enough, a fair amount of it seems rather tricky in the end. Sometimes he sounds like he's doing relatively straightforward fingerpicking, perhaps brushing up with the fingers more than picking, but other times he sounds like he's playing with downstrokes from the thumb and then brushing chords hard with the back of his fingers in downstrokes. I'm thinking of the dance tunes like Charmin' Betsy or Lovin' Babe. There are also some little flourishes occasionally where he seems to do rolling brush stroke with his fingers, e.g., like a flamenco stroke. This second style is a great punchy sound, but is that in fact what he's doing?

Andrew
« Last Edit: April 30, 2009, 08:33:08 PM by uncle bud »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #5 on: March 31, 2005, 04:59:26 PM »
Hi Andrew,
One of the things I find kind of baffling about Henry Thomas's guitar-playing is his variety:  He has a fair number of dance tunes where the back-up is kind of an unusually interesting sort of boom-chang approach, but then he has some tunes where the bass is alternating and the melodic work is far more detailed.  His two "exception" tunes, "Shanty Blues" and "Texas Easy Street" certainly fall into the latter category.  "Shanty Blues" is his only tune in Vastapol and his only slide tune, and he sounds really nifty on it, not like he's heading into unfamiliar territory.  I think "Shanty Blues" also provided the melody and lyric base for both John Hurt's "Payday" and the Mississippi Sheiks' "Bootlegger Blues".  "Texas Easy Street" is Henry Thomas's only recorded tune in E standard, and it is an ace--just beautiful, and it certainly holds its own with other great E blues of the era.
I am going to have to spend a good bit more time working on his music before I feel like I have an adequately informed idea of what he was doing, especially on the dance tunes.  He has a mysterious ability to imply momentary chord changes by just hitting a single note in the bass.  Right hand is always a challenge to figure out, too, especially with players who employ a lot of strumming and brush strokes.  It's good to have a reason to listen to the music a lot.  Maybe I will shoot for a Henry Thomas day at Port Townsend this year in my classes.
Incidentally, I agree with you about his singing.  It is so good.  I have heard Bruce Molsky, a great Oldtime fiddler and banjo player, guitarist and singer say on more than one occasion that Henry Thomas was his favorite singer.  There you go.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #6 on: March 31, 2005, 08:32:53 PM »
Just an additional note that this is probably a good time to remind folks of the great information on quills at this page in our links section: http://www.sohl.com/Quills/Quills.htm

Offline KC King

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #7 on: March 31, 2005, 11:01:38 PM »
I'm not really sure if Henry Thomas was playing in A flat -for the songs with quills- or not. The two session represented in his recordings are slightly off from each other. One is really close to A flat and the other is at least a quarter step higher.? Both recorders might have run slow and he was closer to G, that's my guess. I've been practicing some of the quills parts using a G Major pan pipe with the songs slowed down to G - makes for more jumping around than if it were a major pentatonic, but it seems to work.
KC (Chris) King

Offline Johnm

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #8 on: April 01, 2005, 09:13:59 AM »
You're right, KC King, the stuff from the earlier session is distinctly higher in pitch than the later recordings with quills.  It seems that if the recording equipment was consistent, and it may not have been, he was using two different sets of quills on his recordings.  I don't know enough about quills to answer this:  Is there any reason to assume the quills would have been made to sound in a particular key as opposed to simply being in tune with themselves?  As long as they were in tune with themselves, it is easy enough to tune a guitar up or down to be in tune with them, just as you would to play with a harmonica that was not at concert pitch.  And if the quills were home-made, it seems like the possibility for variability in pitch is greater.  Just wondering.
All best,
Johnm

Offline KC King

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2005, 12:44:12 PM »
Johnm -

Musically speaking that scenario is flawless. I only argue that the pipes would have been pitched to any standard because even in rural Texas there would have been instruments that were tuned to an absolute pitch (or there about) such as pianos, so if one was to make an instrument that would: last awhile, not be easily tuned and be easily playable with other musicians one would tune that instrument to an available resource. As far as the raw data is concerned that is just a guess. I mean we don't even have recordings of Thomas playing with anyone, so who knows. I have heard that it was not uncommon to run these machines slow to add some "punch" to the playback.
Just my thoughts.
 KC
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 01:45:38 PM by Johnm »
KC (Chris) King

Offline ryan

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #10 on: April 01, 2005, 10:34:03 PM »
Since John Miller is to modest to say it himself, I will.  John's version of Henry's Bull Doze blues is superb.  I own the henry thomas on the jsp box set TEXAS Blues "early blues from the lone star state.  Upon hearing his stuff I liked it, but it took hearing John's rendition to make that tune jump out at me.  If I were you I would request this tune at Port Townshend.  Like John mentioned the melody to that song   "is perfection" and if that is the case his version is double perfection.

Offline Slack

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #11 on: April 02, 2005, 10:17:13 AM »
Or maybe John could make it is next Audio Lesson?

Some of us have no patience. ;)

cheers,

Offline Johnm

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #12 on: May 05, 2005, 09:18:49 AM »
Hi all,
I've been thinking some more about how much repertoire cross-over there is between the songs Henry Thomas recorded and the white Old-Time tradition.  There really is quite a lot.  Of course, songs like "John Henry" and "Fox and the Hounds" were done in both black and white traditions with "Fox and the Hounds" done more commonly as "Fox Hunt" or "Fox Chase", as a harmonica novelty number. 
There are other songs too, though.  Henry Thomas's odd "Arkansas" starts off as what seems like a holdover from the minstrel era or early 20th century Pop music, like"Honey Won't You Allow Me One More Chance?" or "Woodhouse Blues", but then partway through, shifts into an altogether different song, which is in fact about Arkansas.  This latter portion of the song is quite close lyrically to a song recorded by the Virginia millworker Kelly Harrell, as "My Name Is John Johanna".  In the Harrell version, the story is more completely told than in Henry Thomas's version.
Henry Thomas's "Little Red Caboose", a one-chord dance number, turns out to be a different song than Paul Warmack and his Gully Jumpers' "Little Red Caboose Behind the Train", which is a parody on "Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane".  "Bully of the Town", which Henry Thomas sings as part of the medley at the end of "Bob McKinney", was recorded by Old-Time bands, most notably Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  A number of the verses Henry Thomas used in "Run, Mollie, Run" turn up in such Uncle Dave Macon songs as "Way Down The Old Plank Road" and "I'm the Child to Fight".  Similarly, both Henry Thomas and Uncle Dave Macon recorded versions of "When The Train Comes Along", though their melodies differ.  "Charmin' Betsy", which is one of the tunes Henry Thomas played quills on, was also recorded by the Georgia banjo player Land Norris, and though their melodies differ, Land Norris did use a pentatonic scale for his version.  It runs as follows:
   VI-I-II-III-V-I, or expressed in the key of C, A-C-D-E-G-A
This would work as the so-called Blues scale for the key of A, but Land Norris gives it a really pretty, subtle sound by keeping C as the key center.  It's a beautiful version, and I don't know where it could currently be found.  I have it on the old County album "Mountain Banjo Songs and Tunes", County 515.
I suspect that if you subjected Henry Thomas's lyrics to a more in-depth scrutiny you would find even more instances of cross-over between the black and white traditions.  There's no reason this should be surprising, I suppose, since the mixing of those traditions is what give much of American traditional music it's distinctive character.
All best,
Johnm

Offline waxwing

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #13 on: May 22, 2009, 01:38:41 PM »
 "Charmin' Betsy" sounds like another dance tune.  His timing and execution of his guitar accompaniment is stellar.  He has this way of lifting his left hand for the fourth beat of the measure and just strumming the open strings, which in the key he's playing, implies a IV chord.

I've been working on Red River Blues which I think has a similar figure to what you are talking about here, Johnm. But playing the open strings (just the top four, a G6, eh?) just didn't sound right. What I think he is doing, in Red River anyway, is playing X-X-0-4-3-0. What's interesting about this is that it could be seen as a D6add9 which if you think about it is the D pentatonic scale. His V chord is the A6, so I think he is using an index finger barre for most of his chording.

In his response licks, the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th measures, he pretty consistently plays the figure going to a "boom" on the 2nd fret of the 4th (and 3rd) strings on the 3rd beat and "changs" the D6add9 or implied IV chord on the and, going back to a boom-chang on the D for the 4th beat. So if you play the D chord with a little three-string barre, you can keep your middle finger on the D note and reach the barre over to get the 4th string (and in a few cases the 5th) and then lift the barre while placing the ring on the 4th fret of the 3rd string and then back to the D chord. That kind of rocking back and forth with a finger planted lick that I think can be done much more quickly than using a normal D fingering.

He also plays the same D6add9 chord for the 4th beat chang to get back from the A6 IV chord to the D. Using these chordings there is only one note in all the chording, the C# in the A6, that is not in the D pentatonic scale and I think that's why he avoids playing the G note, not intellectually, but just 'cause it didn't sound right to him. It kinda muddies things up. And it really means that virtually any part of the melody can be played or sung over any of the chords and that little D6add9 can be stuck in anywhere. Big fun.

Wax
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Offline waxwing

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Re: Henry Thomas
« Reply #14 on: May 24, 2009, 11:30:00 AM »
Anybody else have a chance to suss this out more deeply? Johnm, Uncle Bud? I realize this thread is pretty old but it'd be great to get some feedback from ears and musical minds far superior to mine. Thanks.

Wax
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

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https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

 


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