Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, an early exponent of country blues, was born in Big Sandy, Texas, in 1874, one 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 type of American panpipe made from cane reeds and similar to the Italian zampogna; later, he picked up the guitar. On the twenty-three recordings he made 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." 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 Basically his repertoire, which mostly consists of dance pieces, was out of date by the turn of the century, when the blues began to grow in popularity.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.
Out of Thomas's twenty-three recorded pieces, only four are "bona fide blues," so that he has been looked upon as more of a predecessor rather than a blues singer as such. One commentator has claimed that Thomas's blues are original with him and that other musicians seem not to have performed his pieces. However, Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues" ends with the four bar "Take Me Back," a Texas standard of the World War I era, which Blind Lemon Jefferson had recorded around August 1926 as "Beggin' Back." It would seem, then, that Thomas's blues represent many traditional themes and vocal phrases. For example, Thomas's "Texas Easy Street Blues" contains the verse made famous by Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams in their 1930s to 1950s versions of the Basie-Rushing tune, "Goin' to Chicago." Another well known phrase found in this same Thomas piece is "blue as I can be." But perhaps most indicative of Thomas's transitional position between the early black music and jazz is his "Cottonfield Blues," which contains several standard blues themes: field labor, the desire for escape, and the role of the railroad in providing a freer lifestyle.
Thomas took to the rails to escape from a life of farm work and made a living by singing along the Texas and Pacific and Katy lines that ran from Fort Worth and Dallas to Texarkana. In "Railroadin' Some," he supplies his itinerary, which includes such Texas towns as Rockwall, Greenville (with its infamous sign, "Land of the Blackest Earth and the Whitest People"), Denison, Grand Saline, Silver Lake, Mineola, Tyler (where Thomas was last active in the 1950s), Longview, Jefferson, Marshall, Little Sandy, and his birthplace, Big Sandy. Texas communities are not the only ones cited in this song, for Thomas traveled into the Indian Territory, as he still called it, to Muskogee, over to Missouri and Scott Joplin's stomping grounds of Sedalia, and on up to Kansas City, then into Illinois: Springfield, Bloomington, Joliet, and Chicago, where he attended the 1893 Columbian Exposition, as did Joplin. William Barlow calls this piece the most "vivid and intense recollection of railroading" in all the early blues recorded in the 1920s. The cadences in this early rural blues "depict the restless lifestyle of the vagabonds who rode the rails and their boundless enthusiasm for the mobility it gave them."
Thomas's recordings represent a wide variety of sources for his Texas brand of country music, dating back to a time before the blues became popular and before they subsumed many other popular song forms. This perhaps accounts for the fact that three of Thomas's songs—"Fishing Blues," "Woodhouse Blues," and "Red River Blues"—are not really based on the blues but may have taken the name as a way of capitalizing on the form's growing popularity. According to Stephen Calt, both "Fishing Blues" and "Woodhouse Blues" are of vaudeville origins, while "Red River Blues" has been related melodically to "Comin' Round the Mountain," published in sheet music form in 1889 but deriving from an earlier spiritual.
The importance of Thomas's recordings as something of a compendium of the popular song forms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—from spiritual to "coon song," from "rag" song to blues—is enhanced by the similar range of instrumental techniques found in his work with guitar and quills. In a sense, then, Henry Thomas represents a vital link between the roots of black music in Africa, nineteenth and twentieth century American folksong (including spiritual, hillbilly, "rag," and "coon"), and the coming of the blues—all of these contributing in turn to the formation of jazz in its various forms, which are reflected in the varied approaches to rhythmic, tonal, and thematic expression practiced by "Ragtime Texas" decades before he made his series of recordings from 1927 to 1929.
William Barlow, "Looking Up at Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989). Samuel Charters, The Blues Makers (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991). Samuel Charters, The Country Blues (London: Jazz Book Club, 1961). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Derrick Stewart–Barker, "Record Reviews," Jazz Journal 28 (May 1975).
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