BIG SANDY — As community members finished dedicating a historical marker Jan. 21 on U.S. 80 west of town, a Union Pacific freight train trundled along the nearby tracks. Trailing behind the yellow locomotives were three red box cars with doors wide open.
About 100 years ago, the man whom that marker honors might have hopped aboard one of those cars and started writing a song.
Aside from handed-down stories, not much is known about Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas. He was born in 1874 in this Upshur County town to share-cropping parents who were freed slaves. He left the cotton patch and rode the rails, writing tales of travel that were sung by some of the most famous rock musicians of the 20th century.
When and where Thomas died and was buried remains largely unknown. But 150 years after he was born, his legacy as one of the nation’s early-day Black blues musicians — and one of the earliest Black “songsters” to be recorded — is the subject of research by a West Texas college professor.
And Thomas’ songs about Texas, laments of love and refrains about the rails are still remembered around the globe — even in East Texas.
“There’s people out there trying to keep this music alive. Not too many,” said Rebecca Babcock, a professor at the University of Texas Permian Basin in Odessa who has studied Thomas’ work. “There’s people that know that this music is important. And it needs to be remembered.”
A Big Sandy song
If Thomas isn’t the only singer who’s ever named the town of Big Sandy in a song, he’s one of a handful — maybe even a spoonful.
In his song “Railroadin’ Some,” he named several cities in East Texas along the Texas and Pacific Railway and Missouri-Kansas-Texas “Katy” Railroad lines that ran through his hometown. The rails were his means of escape.
“You know that song by Johnny Cash, ‘I’ve Been Everywhere?’ So, he lists all these cities that he’s been to,” Babcock said. “Henry Thomas had the first song like that.”
One of nine siblings, Thomas had a “strong dislike” for the family’s occupation: cotton farming, Greg Johnson with the Cascade Blues Association wrote in 1999. So, Thomas left home as a teenager and became a self-taught itinerant musician.
Thomas’ repertoire as a “songster,” a term applied to some Black musicians of the era, spanned folk stories such as “John Henry,” Gospel messages such as “Jonah in the Wilderness,” dance ditties like “Old Country Stomp” and early blues tunes: “Cottonfield Blues,” “Red River Blues,” “Texas Easy Street Blues” and, ironically, “Texas Worried Blues.”
With an upbeat tempo, “Easy Street” is a refrain about leaving somewhere and heading back to the Lone Star State; in the slower “Worried Blues,” he cries out that he has no one to hear his troubles: “If my girl don’t want me, cast me in the sea/So the fish and the whales make a fuss all over me.”
The sound of solid steel pervades some of his songs, Babcock said. In “Railroadin’ Some,” the listener can hear the rhythm of the rails, coupled with his impression of a steam whistle, as he lists off town after town, one by one. His lyrics are difficult to decipher, though.
“I’m sure he wrote that himself, either on the train or remembering his experiences on the train,” Babcock said. “He probably learned from other itinerant musicians, because part of the folk tradition is learning songs that you hear other musicians play.”
Thomas traveled across Texas and the Midwest. Though hobos weren’t welcome on trains, his music might have charmed train crews and garnered him enough favor to stay onboard, Babcock said. He entertained passengers, too, she added.
The rails got Thomas to Chicago where he’d make — and record — history.
Breaking the color barrier
Thomas would have been 19 when he played at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Johnson wrote. He wound his way back to the Windy City in the following decades.
In the 1920s, Thomas was in his 50s, and his musical career was in its prime. He recorded 23 songs with Vocalion Records in Chicago from 1927 to 1929. Many were advertised like this:
“ANOTHER Big Hit by Henry Thomas, ‘Ragtime Texas,’ is our offering this week,” one undated Vocalion ad proclaimed. “You’ve never heard anything like ‘THE FOX AND THE HOUNDS’ before, and we know you’re going to rave about it. You just can’t beat ‘Ragtime Texas’ when it comes to singing, whistling and strumming a mean guitar.”
That was no false advertisement. The fast-paced song starts with a solo on the quills. Long before country songs popularized singing about carrying guns and running away, Thomas captured it all in this tune with lyrics like these: “Look down the road, spies a man/big old gun, big old gun/looks like mine.” The “Ragtime Texas” moniker likely was applied to him because of his songs’ speediness, Oliphant wrote.
Though Thomas wasn’t the first Black artist to be recorded, he was one of the earlier ones, Babcock said. The music industry was still largely segregated in the 1920s. Yet Thomas broke through the color barrier, and the number of tunes he recorded was high for an artist at that point in time.
“Henry Thomas was a best-seller,” Babcock said.
Thomas probably made a living by playing for tips on street corners or in railroad depots, Babcock said. A short clip in a little-known 1931 German film, “Chicago — Weltstadt in Flegeljahren (A World City Stretches its Wings),” appears to feature him singing and playing the guitar during a medicine show, Babcock said.
By the time he was in the Chicago studios, he was “most assuredly” the oldest Black performer to be recorded singing the blues at the time, Johnson wrote. He was also one of only a few musicians to be recorded playing the quills before the 1960s when folk music experienced a resurgence, Leonardi wrote.
His songs were probably as old as he was, if not older. Many likely date back to the years immediately following the abolition of slavery. His records are some of the few tangible ways music from that era has been preserved audibly, Babcock said.
“That’s why he in particular is very important,” she said.
Rockin’ through history
Those who watched the hit 2023 film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the retelling of the Osage murders in northern Oklahoma in the early 1900s, heard an era-appropriate Thomas song: “Bull Doze Blues,” which plays in an early downtown scene. It’s one of the latest instances in which Thomas’ work has resurfaced.
In a sense, his music never really faded away.
In 1952, two of his songs were included in what the Smithsonian calls “one of the most influential releases in the history of recorded sound.” Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” brought attention to some lesser-known songs from the earlier part of the century, according to the Smithsonian, including Thomas’ “Old Country Stomp” and “Fishing Blues” (sometimes spelled without the “g”), the last song in the anthology.
The conglomeration is credited with influencing Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and more.
The rail cars Thomas rode would have rocked from side to side. And fittingly, the musicians who’ve kept his musicians alive rocked, too.
In the liner notes for the album, Dylan said he heard Thomas’ recording of the song but only remembered his first name and that he was dead. The plea in the song’s title is what struck Dylan, he said in the notes.
A few years later, a New York rock band that sprang to stardom called the Lovin’ Spoonful drew on Thomas’ influence, too.
After becoming a full professor at the University of Texas Permian Basin, Babcock set out to research the band. She learned about Thomas a few years ago while researching musicians who inspired the band.
“I always knew the Lovin’ Spoonful ever since I was a child, and they have a song on their first album that’s called ‘Henry Thomas,’ ” Babcock said. “But I never thought of it.”
The band sang “Fishin’ Blues” in 1965, and it was featured in the Woody Allen movie “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”
The Grateful Dead started singing a revised version of Thomas’ “Don’t Ease Me In” in 1966. Blues rock band Canned Heat performed “Going up the Country” in 1968, putting its own twist on “Bull Doze Blues.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and blues artist Taj Mahal sang “Fishin’ Blues” on the band’s 2002 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III.” Mahal had been singing the song for decades.
Thomas’ original recordings are available on YouTube and other music streaming platforms. Babcock said she’s a fan.
“I think once you hear his music, you’ll like it,” she said.
‘Such an impact’
Big Sandy Mayor Linda Baggett — a self-described “child of the ‘60s” and fan of Dylan and the Lovin’ Spoonful — didn’t have to think twice before answering the question: Is Big Sandy proud to be the home of Henry Thomas?
“Oh, heavens yes,” she said. “He had such an impact on the music world and has been quite an influence with other groups.”
Baggett was the main speaker at the historical marker ceremony, which Babcock attended.
The marker was years in the making. Lou Mallory, who was the chair of the Wood County Historical Commission, wrote the information for the plaque, dated 2018. She died in 2019.
The Big Sandy Museum pays homage to Thomas’ life, as does the Big Sandy Wikipedia page, which lists him and former NFL coach Lovie Smith as the two notable people from town.
Despite the knowledge available at the museum, on the marker and online, much of Thomas’ life remains a mystery. “He’s an enigma,” Babcock said.
Babcock asks that anyone with information about Thomas contact her, saying scholars are “desperate” to learn more about him and talk with his family members.
She can be reached at (432) 552-2304 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas’ siblings worked in the rail yards in Longview, Babcock said.
The website Find a Grave says Thomas’ burial details are unknown. Like the freight train that rolled along the tracks at the close of the marker dedication, Thomas was here. Then he was gone.
One of his songs might solve the mystery of his final stop. A little more than halfway through “Jonah in the Wilderness,” an account of the Biblical preacher, Thomas writes: “When we get to heaven, I will sit and tell/I’ve escaped old death in heaven.”
Something — or someone — must have carried him there. In the tune “When the Train Comes Along,” he invites others to climb aboard: “If Jesus loves us, for our sins/I’ll meet you at the station, I’ll meet you in the morn’/ I’ll meet you at the station when the train comes along.”
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