An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
"Old Country Stomp" - Henry Thomas
Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Eight: "Old Country Stomp" performed by Henry Thomas "Ragtime Texas". "Vocal solo with guitar and whistle." Recorded in Chicago on June 13, 1928. Original issue Vocalion 1230.
Born in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874, Henry Thomas (also known as "Ragtime Texas" Thomas) performed on the streets of Dallas as a young man. He was reportedly something of a hobo, traveling around and performing music. Between 1927 and 1929, Thomas recorded twenty-three sides for Vocalion Records, including the two songs heard on the Anthology. Nothing is known of Thomas's life after 1929 and his death date is unrecorded, although it is estimated that he died sometime during the 1950s or '60s.
Thanks to the exposure provided by the Anthology, Thomas has exerted considerable influence on artists in the '50s and '60s. Both Taj Mahal and the Lovin' Spoonful have covered Thomas's "Fishing Blues" (which appears later on the third volume), Canned Heat covered Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues" as "Goin' Up The Country," Bob Dylan covered "Honey Won't You Allow Me One More Chance" and the Grateful Dead covered "Don't Ease Me In."
Thomas is unique because he was in his fifties when he recorded in the '20s, making him considerably older than most of the African-American musicians who appear on the Anthology. Thomas therefore presents a rare example of the pre-blues "songster" style of African-American music. According to the Wikipedia entry on "songsters", "songsters generally performed a wide variety of folk songs, ballads, dance tunes, reels and minstrel songs." The songsters exerted a considerable influence on blues music, which evolved during the early 1900s.
"Old Country Stomp" is a fairly simple tune with a repetitive riff and a strong rhythm (although Thomas speeds the tempo up during the first few bars of the song, following the introduction). This is the third song on the "Social Music" collection to feature the human voice, but unlike the first two, "Old Country Stomp" includes actual singing (as opposed to speaking or whooping). During the first two verses, Thomas sings instructions similar to the "calling" featured on "Georgia Stomp". All of the verses that follow feature folk lyric clusters, which seems to have little relationship to one another, other to declare that the singer "is going away," that he is "going back to Baltimore," and wishing his friends "fare you well."
Get your partner, promenade. Promenade, go around now.
[Unintelligible] this side of the room. Take your partners, promenade.
Fare you well, fare you well. Fare you well, fare you well.
Goodbye boys, fare you well. Goodbye boys, fare you well.
I'm going back to Baltimore. I'm going back to Baltimore.
That's all right 'cause I'm gone. That's all right 'cause I'm gone.
Come on boys, go with me. Come on boys and go with me.
Thomas's music is remarkable both for his laconic singing style and for his use of the quills, an African-American pan flute made of cane. Thomas likely suspended his quills from a harmonica rack, allowing him to play the guitar and quills simultaneously. The pan flute or pan pipe is one of the oldest wind instruments known to man. It consists of five or more closed tubes of gradually increasing length and/or width bound together. The player blows across the top of the tubes to produce a pitch. The pan flute is considered to be an ancestor of both the pipe organ and the harmonica. The use of the quills on Thomas's recordings give them a strangely paleolithic sound, making them seem archaic, even for the period during which they were recorded. When Canned Heat covered one of Thomas's songs, they made use of the quills to give their music a similarly archaic sound.
The Great-Minds-Think-Alike Department: Check out The Old, Weird America, another blog on Smith's Anthology. While my blog focuses on history and close lyrical reading (as well as my laughable attempts at musical analysis), The Old, Weird America helps give a broader view of the artists and the songs by providing downloads of other songs by the artists in question, as well as variant recordings of the selection. It's an excellent blog and is well worth visiting.
Deep Inside The Shameless Plug Department: The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. It is my intention to do a fifth episode in the near future, although for the time being I am busy acting in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. As soon as I have more time, you can rest assured that I will do a new episode of the podcast. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?
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Here's a version of "Old Country Stomp" performed by John Price on guitar, Tim Rowell on banjo, Tim Baldanzi on mandolin and Ren Price on bass. Their rendition is quite delicate and is, sadly, somewhat overwhelmed by the sound of the crowd. Nevertheless, they do a spirited job with a fairly obscure number.