Saturday Singles Nos. 93 & 94

Originally posted October 4, 2008

There are few opening riffs in rock history as identifiable – or as delightful – as the flute that opens Canned Heat’s 1968 recording, “Going Up The Country.”

Just hearing the first notes of the riff brings a smile to my face and images to my mind, generally images from the 1970 film Woodstock, which used Canned Heat’s recording to set the stage for the documentary about the massive festival in upstate New York. The song existed before the festival, though, having been released in December 1968 as Liberty 56077, when it went as high as No. 11 on the chart, the second of three Top 40 hits for Canned Heat.

The recording, with Al Wilson’s reed-thin vocals interwoven with the (evidently uncredited) flute solo, pretty well sums up the hippie ethos of getting back to the land with the aim of partying well: Witness the couplet, “I’m going where the water tastes like wine/We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.” With its lilting melody, it’s an infectious song, and it’s one that to me seems at odds with the bulk of Canned Heat’s blues and boogie catalog.

We can be sure of one thing: Al Wilson and his bandmate Bear Hite (who rivaled Wilson as a collector of old blues on 78 rpm records) had some music by Henry Thomas in their collections.

How do we know? Well, drop to the bottom of this post and click on the link for “Bull Doze Blues,” one of twenty-three songs recorded in Chicago between 1927 and 1929 by Henry Thomas. The flute used by Canned Heat on “Going Up The Country” was clearly inspired by Thomas’ playing of an instrument called the quills, created by lashing together different lengths of cane, thus looking much like a set of panpipes.

So who was Henry Thomas? Most sources agree he was born in Big Sandy, Texas, in 1874.

He was, says the Handbook of Texas Online:

“[O]ne of nine children of former slaves who sharecropped on a cotton plantation in the northeastern part of the state. Thomas learned to hate cotton farming at an early age and left home as soon as he could, around 1890, to pursue a career as an itinerant ‘songster.’ Derrick Stewart-Barker has commented that for his money Thomas was the best songster ‘that ever recorded.’ Thomas first taught himself to play the quills, a folk instrument made from cane reeds that sound similar to the quena used by musicians in Peru and Bolivia; later, he picked up the guitar. On the twenty-three recordings made by Thomas from 1927 to 1929, he sings a variety of songs and accompanies himself on guitar and at times on the quills. His accompaniment work on guitar has been ranked ‘with the finest dance blues ever recorded’ and, according to Stephen Calt, ‘its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era.’ The range of Thomas’s work makes him something of a transitional figure between the early minstrel songs, spirituals, square dance tunes, hillbilly reels, waltzes, and rags and the rise of blues and jazz. Basically his repertoire, which mostly consists of dance pieces, was out-of-date by the turn of the century when the blues began to grow in popularity. Thomas’s nickname, ‘Ragtime Texas,’ is thought to have come to him because he played in fast tempos, which were synonymous for some musicians with ragtime. Five of Thomas’s pieces have been characterized as ‘rag ditties,’ among them ‘Red River Blues,’ and such rag songs have been considered the immediate forerunners and early rivals of blues.”

Canned Heat’s Al Wilson was not the only 1960s musician pulling inspiration from Thomas’ work. The Lovin’ Spoonful and Taj Mahal both reworked Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” into recordings, and Bob Dylan gives Thomas writing credit on his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album for the song “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance,” which derived from Thomas’ “Honey Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance.” I recall reading a statement from Dylan that he first heard his tune “from an old blues singer in Texas.”

Did Thomas always get credit for the songs he either wrote or inspired? Not really. Canned Heat’s tune is credited to Wilson alone on the recent CD The Very Best of Canned Heat. I don’t have a Lovin’ Spoonful LP with the group’s version of “Fishin’ Blues” on it, but all of their recordings of it listed at All-Music Guide are credited to “Traditional.” And on De Ole Folks At Home, Taj Mahal credits “Fishin’ Blues” to Henry Thomas and J. Williamson, whoever that might be. There are probably other versions of Henry Thomas’ songs out there, but those four recordings are the ones I’m familiar with.

It was not uncommon in the 1960s, when that era’s generation of musicians was sharing and discovering old tunes, to not know the provenance of a particular piece of music. Given what we’ve learned since then, many of that era’s performers have gladly credited long-ago musicians for their creations. The prime examples may be the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, musicians never shy about acknowledging their influences. Canned Heat’s Al Wilson is long gone – he died in 1970 – but I’d like to think he’d have credited Thomas for his portion of “Going Up The Country” if he’d known.

(An aside: On the CD, The Very Best of Canned Heat, the song in question is listed as “Goin’ Up The Country” instead of “Going Up The Country.” I check Canned Heat’s original LPs and I’ve gone with the spelling there: “Going Up The Country.”)

Credited or not, it’s clear that Henry Thomas had at least some influence on the music we listen to today. What’s fascinating is that, with a birth year of 1874, Thomas is evidently the earliest-born African-American whose music was ever recorded. And since he wrote and developed his music in the years before the blues developed fully – that happened, most think, around 1900, and Thomas’ music evidently was developed in the 1890s, though not recorded for another thirty years – Thomas’ music is an aural canvas of the music African-Americans were listening to one generation after emancipation.*

No one seems sure when Thomas died. There are reports of his being seen along the railroads and in the less-pleasant portions of big cities – especially in Texas – in the mid-1950s, when he would have been close to eighty years old. We’ll most likely never know when he crossed over. But we have his music, and it’s available in a number of anthologies. The one I have is Texas Worried Blues: Henry Thomas/Complete Recorded Works, 1927-1929, on the Yazoo label (a great label to explore for vintage blues).

So here are Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” and Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” today’s Saturday Singles.

Henry Thomas – “Bull Doze Blues” (1928)

Canned Heat – “Going Up The Country” (1968)

*The statement that “Thomas is evidently the earliest-born African-American whose music was ever recorded” – which I read in a Web-based piece that I can no longer find – is in error. A little more than two months after this piece was originally posted, a helpful reader whose expertise is in Nineteenth Century recordings sent me a lengthy list of recorded African-American musicians whose birth dates predate that of Henry Thomas. That list is included in a later post available hereNote added August 19, 2011 and amended November 9, 2011.

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One Response to “Saturday Singles Nos. 93 & 94”

  1. I Know I Read It Somewhere « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] October, when I wrote about Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” and the resurrection of the song’s opening riff in Canned […]

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