Many blues aficionados believe, rightly so, that Texas blues came out of the cotton fields. However, they also tend to think that cotton was the only antebellum cash crop that was grown in the state. Not true. Sugar cane preceded cotton, and was grown in the fertile river bottoms of Texas, especially in the plantations near the Gulf of Mexico. Sugar cane not only produced sugar but many other derivatives, such as molasses. Stalks were used for various purposes as well.
Where do these historical facts connect with the development of the Texas blues? The link is through the quills, a sort of pan pipe made from cane stalks. “The quills are first mentioned in early American plantation slave histories, some dating back to the late 1700s. At that time, the instrument appears to consist of two or more cane pipes, played for recreation and dancing, accompanied by shouts, whoops and songs. They are mentioned fairly often in oral histories but little structural and musical information has survived. Considering how popular they appear to have been, it is surprising that they are almost unheard of today. Quills were also used by free blacks in New Orleans in the 1800s. Two bluesmen recorded songs with the quills in 1920, and a rural folk tradition has survived to this day in the American south,” states the website sohl.com.
Texas-born Henry “Ragtime” Thomas was one of those black bluesmen mentioned and the other was Big Boy Cleveland. “Thomas was born into a family of freed slaves in Big Sandy, Texas in 1874 [d. 1930]. He began traveling the Texas railroad lines as a hobo after leaving home in his teens, eventually earning his way as an itinerant songster, entertaining local populaces as well as railway employees. Besides the guitar, Thomas accompanied himself on quills, a folk instrument fabricated from cane reeds whose sound is similar to the zampona played by musicians in Peru and Bolivia,” reports Wikipedia.
Other writers, such as Tom Leonardi, argue that quills were also made from a type of bamboo that was native to the South. “The cane is specifically Arundinaria Gigantea, a.k.a. Southern Cane, Switch Cane or Canebrake Bamboo. It’s the only native bamboo found in North America and is common throughout the South where a thick, dense forest of cane is called a ‘Canebrake’ (there are also numerous towns and townships named “Canebrake” throughout the South, and even one in Kern County, California – probably settled by southerners),” claims Leonardi on the KZFR 90.1 FM website.
Since very few, if any, samples remain, one can only guess which type of quill Thomas was using when he recorded a total of 24 record sides for Vocalion Records between 1927 and 1929. Henry’s legacy has been sustained by his songs, which were revived by musicians beginning in the folk music revival of the early 1960s. His recorded songs such as “Bull-doze Blues” a.k.a. “Going Up the Country,” “Old Country Stomp,” and “Fishing Blues,” have since influenced major musicians such as Bob Dylan, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder and Canned Heat. Dylan listed the black Texas bluesman as his co-writer on his 1963 Freewheelin’ album while the folk-rock group Lovin’ Spoonful’s first hit album (1965) Do You Believe in Magic? included their version of Thomas’s “Fishing Blues.” Three years later, Taj Mahal came out with another version of “Fishing Blues” and in 2002 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band followed suit. The Spoonful’s version of “Fishing Blues” became the soundtrack for Woody Allen’s 1966 film What’s Up Tiger Lily?
Like black songster Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas, Thomas was discovered late in his life and enjoyed only a short time in the blues music spotlight. His influence, however, was strong on white musicians discovering the joys of performing blues roots music, especially during the boom years of the 1960s. What would the blues sound like today had these important discoveries not have occurred?