10 August, 2010

"Fishing Blues" - Henry Thomas ("Ragtime Texas")

Set Three: Songs; Disc Two; Track Fourteen: "Fishing Blues" performed by Henry Thomas ("Ragtime Texas"). "Vocal solo with guitar, and whistle." Recorded in Chicago on June 13, 1928. Original issue Vocalion 1249.

For biographical information on Henry Thomas, see the entry for "Old Country Stomp."

Went up on the hill about twelve o'clock.
Reached right back and got me a pole.
Went to the hardware and got me a hook.
Placed that line right on that hook.

Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.
I bet your life your lovin'wife
Can catch more fish than you.

Any fish bite if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite if you got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm a-goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Looked down the river about one o'clock.
Spied this catfish swimmin' around.
I got so hungry, didn't know what to do.
I'm gonna get me a catfish too.

Yes, you've been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.
I bet your life your lovin' wife
Catch more fish than you.

Any fish bite got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite if you got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Put on the skillet, lay down your lid.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.

Says you been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin a-fishin' too.
I bet your life, your lovin' wife
Can catch more fish than you.

Any fish bite if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite if you got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Recorded at the same 1928 as "Old Country Stomp," "Fishing Blues" is the perfect capstone for Smith's monumental Anthology. The song is not heavy or profound (in spite of Greil Marcus' wishful thinking about Thomas providing the "secret of life" in this song). It is a sexual boast thinly disguised by a fishing metaphor. Indeed, in Smith's notes he points out that references to fishing "other than sexual symbolism, are rare in American Folk Music."

Thomas starts the song with a spritely guitar introduction, followed by a noticeable slowing of the tempo once Thomas starts singing. Between the chorus and the verse, Thomas plays the song's theme on the quills. Thomas' voice is thick and some of the lyrics recorded here are conjectural (especially in the last verse). In his notes, Smith points out that "Fishing Blues" incorporates "Shortnin' Bread," a song often assumed to be a genuine example of African American folklore. It was, in fact, written in 1900 by the white poet James Whitcomb Riley.

"Fishing Blues" has been covered by the Loving Spoonful, Taj Mahal, and others.

This brings us to the end of the original three volume Anthology set originally released on six LPs in 1952 by Folkways records. In the next entry, we will begin the "lost" fourth volume released in 2000 by Revenant Records.

At the end of the set's original booklet, Smith lists "a few quotations from various authors that have been useful to the editor in preparing the notes for this handbook."

In elementary music the relation of earth to the sphere of water is 4 to 3, as there are in the Earth four quarters of frigidity to three of water.

- Robert Fludd

Civilized man thinks out his difficulties, at least he thinks he does, primitive man dances out his difficulties.

- R.R. Marrett

Do as thy wilt shall be the whole of the law.
-Aleister Crowley

The in-breathing becomes thought, and the out-breathing becomes the will manifestation of thought.

-Rudolph Steiner

The first quotation comes from Robert Fludd (1574-1637). Fludd was a prominent English doctor who extensively studded the occult. Fludd's inclusion here reflects Smtih's interest in alchemy (Smith was known as the "Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel" and claimed that his father had given him a blacksmith's set for his thirteenth birthday, commanding him to turn lead into gold).

The second quote comes from the British ethnologist Robert Ranulph Marett (1866-1943). Marett (whose name is misspelled "Marrett" in Smith's notes) was best known for his work in the field of religious ethnology.

The third quote comes from the famed English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Smith sometimes hinted that Crowley was his real father.

The last quote comes from Rudolph Joseph Lorenz Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian philosopher and the founder of Anthroposophy, a spiritual movement that touted an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world that could be accessed through inner development. The movement was linked to Madam Blavatsky's Theosophy, a spiritual movement of which Smith's parents were allegedly followers.

The quotes from Fludd (an alchemist), Marett (an expert on primitive religions), Crowley (an occultist and hedonist), and Steiner (a spiritualist) all hint that Smith's intention in releasing the Anthology was to commit an elaborate act of social magic. Smith has admitted in interviews that he was influenced by Plato's theories on music and its link to social order; that if one changes the music in a culture, one runs the risk of upsetting that culture's social order. It was Smith's stated intention in releasing this carefully sequenced collection of pre-war music into post-war America to bring about change. When Smith was presented with a special Grammy award in 1991, he said: "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music."

This is not to suggest that Smith was an actual magician, but rather to point out that the one place that magic undoubtedly exists is in the human mind. It has long be noted that an idea is the most potent virus. The Anthology helped spark the folk music revival of the late '50s and early '60s, influencing such artists as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and Jerry Garcia. If Smith had not released the Anthology, or if he had released it in a different form, the musical landscape might look very different today.

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Here's Taj Mahal performing a version of "Fishing Blues."

Here's Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing a version of "Fishing Blues" complete with quills!

Download and listen to Henry Thomas - "Fishing Blues"

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