0304: “Fishing Blues” by Henry Thomas

Everything today stems from something many yesterdays ago. Everything new is old, everything has in fact been done before or elsewhere, and no art is truly original. The masters of art look and feel and sound original but they are not in the grand scheme of things (but they are to us individually), so show me the artist who created something tabula rasa or without any influences and I’ll believe in the myth of capital-O Originality. This is human nature, not an indictment on any lack of inherent originality or authenticity. I love Don Quixote but Cervantes didn’t wake up one day, the only person walking the earth at that time, with the idea of a novel in his head. He is generally considered to be the first writer to publish the modern novel only because we don’t know the name of the guy before him. (World power politics plays into art as well: almost all famous artists and writers, especially ones before the 20th century, have their success line up with their country of origin being a world power—or at the very least, a burgeoning one. Otherwise, why we would give a shit about the Dutch?)

The expansive boundaries of the music in the ’60s trace their roots in the decades beforehand. To some degree, I think even the most casual consumer of music knows this. But what they may not know—nay, not even someone that fancies themselves an advanced consumer of music—is the role that an eccentric named Harry Everett Smith (no relation) factors into this. Smith had his hands in seemingly everything eclectic: he made experimental films, he collected Ukrainian Easter eggs and paper airplanes, he was a presence in the Beat and hippie movements (it probably didn’t hurt that he looked a little like Allen Ginsberg at one point), and he carried an elastic spirituality with him during the time of mind-altering drugs. Everything interested him in ways that maybe only the child of Pantheist parents who lived in separate houses on the same land can. Harry Smith was also a voracious collector of music, to the point that he amassed a large collection of folk, race, Cajun, blues, and regional country albums that he was going to sell. The prospective buyer instead told him to take them and edit it into an anthology. The result was the Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, which is essentially a living, breathing artifact of pre-war American art.

The Anthology of American Folk Music is a catalog of songs from the mid-’20s to the mid-’30s and it is the blueprint for the ’60s. The Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, Buell Kazee, Charlie Patton: some of the many artists, to an audience outside their performing regions, that were connected to kids in underground ways who would grow up to form a band in San Francisco or Omaha or wherever a decade or two later.

The Anthology ends with “Fishing Blues” by Henry Thomas. Like so many tracks of the Depression era race records, you hear the audio hiss that is unmistakably tied to vinyl albums. What starts as an acoustic blues-y folks-y song takes an unexpected turn at the 00:43 mark if you’ve never heard anything from Thomas’s catalog in the form of a pan flute. Thomas’s guitar playing helped define the Texas blues sound, which still casts influence on artists today, but that pan flute… that helped create an infrastructure for the hippie sound. It probably birthed “Going Up the Country” by Canned Heat (Alan Wilson was a chronicled and devout man of blues faith until he, like many other artists, died at 27, which can make one think that that kind of thing transcends coincidence). “Fishing Blues” is free-range blues with a mellowness and singability made for capitalizing on by a future younger generation. Henry Thomas only recorded music for a few years but his mark was made so that an eccentric collector could find and bring it to a wider audience. Everything new is old; creative love notes and thank-yous to an artist’s influences, just as the Depression era blues and country music was built on the folk music and church hymns of previous generations. Nothing can truly move forward without consulting the landmarks of memories from time to time. Thank God for the eccentrics who dig up new landmarks and memories for which new generations of artists can expand on and try to make their own. The source of a good and diverse culture relies on such things.

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