Return to James "Son" Thomas (person)


An unknown blues singer from the Mississippi Delta. Son never really had a hit song or made much of himself. But he was sure a hit for these folks at the Center for Southern Folklore. We made two films of old Son Thomas (some called him Sonny Ford Thomas) and at least two albums. I made one of those albums, just me and old Son, together every day for a couple of weeks in the studio. I was pretty proud of both of us, too.

I had to get him a good guitar to play; his was a piece of crap. This girl who was playing piano in a band I was in at the time had a vintage Martin. I can't remember the exact style number, but it was the mid-size Martin that they made back around 1940. (D-18?) What a sweet, sweet axe.

I would restring it and tune it up for him every day, and that son of a bitch could wail on that guitar. He knew he was playing an instrument like he'd never touched before, and he showed it respect. I'd sit there in the studio and just encourage him to play whatever he felt like. We'd have a couple of beers, but I had to keep him sober. He was bad about getting too drunk to really show his stuff. (Well, musical stuff.) We got 10 tracks that were what I would call excellent. But they weren't what I'd call superior. There weren't any real fuck-ups, but when he'd play those instrumental breaks in between singing, it was just sort of empty. It was his singing while he was playing which was exceptional.

I had a guy I knew who was a harp player. (His name was Mark Sallings, and he used to tour and play in a blues band of his own called The Famous Unknowns. He later died in a car wreck February 25, 2009, while driving to a casino gig in Tunica, Mississippi.) We paid him a few hundred bucks to come in and lay down harp tracks for all those 10 songs. He did a wonderful job. I still listen to that stuff today and get chill bumps. It wasn't easy, either, 'cause Son had a tendency to lose the beat sometimes and get off rhythm. Mark had to listen to that tape hundreds of times before making his pass at it, in order to get the beats right.

So I finished the work and presented it to the head dicks. Know what they told me? The white boy playing the harp doesn't actually know Son and has never performed with him, so this ain't folklore. The harp tracks had to go.

So we put out the album and it bombed, as I knew it would, without the harp. Son had his hopes on this being his best shot at some sort of fame. He was living a dirt poor life in Mississippi with no hope. Know what his hobby was? He sculpted clay into human skulls, 'cause he was a gravedigger for many years. He lived a life of bone-chilling poverty that you can only imagine.

Would this album with the harp player have changed his life? I'll never know. I do know two things:

  1. He is dead now and it doesn't much matter. He stayed in Mississippi one day too long.
  2. The folklorists in question didn't give a shit about him; they only cared about their little careers. One of the two who made those decisions was the head of your National Endowment for the Humanities during the Clinton era.
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