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 [this year's model|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 [harmonica|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 dick]s. 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 [William R. Ferris|National Endowment for the Humanities] during the Clinton era.
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