"Fishing Blues," more than any other single song, serves as Taj Mahal's signature tune. The song anchors Giant Steps/Dem Ole Folks at Home and is a perennial favorite in Mahal's live repertoire. "Fishing Blues" even appears as a standout collaboration between Mahal and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the Dirt Band's recent roots collection Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 3.
The song is an infectious musical smile a simple folk tune with a jumpy rhythm, cheery vocals and a timeless summer theme: fishing. I've heard it played through car stereos, drifting through smoke at backyard barbecues, and played for children at bedtime and birthday parties. But I'd never heard the original until I stumbled across a copy of Henry Thomas' Texas Worried Blues on a particularly down day of a particularly down year (2002). Driven by curiosity, I slid the CD into a player and pushed play. Before the music poured out of the speakers, a few questions cycled through my head: "Who is Henry Thomas? Is this the original version of the 'Fishing Blues?' Is this collection worth the price of a used CD?"
Then, the revelation. Through the pops and hiss of a typical 78-to-CD transfer came Thomas' bouncy rhythm guitar, mellow vibrato voice and the real kicker the quills (a pan flute made of cane). I'd never heard pan flute accompanying blues before, in a role often filled by harmonica. Chiming in during Thomas' vocal breaks, the quills sounded as natural as bird songs and train whistles, providing an infectious levity to the often heavy subject matter of Thomas' lyrics.
A broad smile stretched across my face. It mattered little that Texas Worried Blues was released in 1989. It mattered little that the Vocalion recordings on the compilation are some of the earliest recorded blues (1927-1929), or that Henry Thomas was over 50 years old at the time of the sessions. What mattered was the great, timeless music in the air, music full of genuine human emotion, originality and soul.
It's easy to see why Bob Dylan covered "Honey, Won't You Allow Me One More Chance?" on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, why Canned Heat retooled "Bull Doze Blues" into "Going Up the Country," and the Grateful Dead covered "Don't Ease Me In." It's also easy to see why Taj Mahal centered his career around "Fishing Blues."
The charm of Thomas' songwriting and delivery emerges from subject matter and sounds gleaned from personal experience and various folk-music traditions. Although the territory traversed by Thomas' songs has been mined beyond cliché in recent decades, the short glimpses he provides of work ("Cottonfield Blues"), transience ("Arkansas," "When the Train Comes Along"), revenge ("Bob McKinney"), unrequited love/sex ("Don't Leave Me Here"), religion ("Jonah In the Wilderness"), folk heroes ("John Henry") and simple pleasures ("Fishing Blues") sparkle with the power of precedence and living tradition.
The simplicity of Thomas' music often belies its depth. The quills on "Railroadin' Some" mimic rail cars rattling on tracks, and steam whistles communicating station stops. In between these vérité sounds, Thomas calls out a list of rail destinations across the U.S. Like others on this compilation, the song documents its time period with a distinctly turn-of-the-last-century American wanderlust, melancholy and occasional transcendence.
Digested entirely in one sitting, Texas Worried Blues grows a little repetitious. However, sampled in chunks of four or five songs at a time, the recorded works of Henry Thomas have the effect of stumbling across a scruffy American busker of unusual caliber from an era long gone, but still entrenched within the American mind and experience.
Long after this year's trendy, polished and predictable phenomena have faded from the bulky belly of disposable print and their respective 15 seconds of televised and digitized vanity, "Fishing Blues" and Henry Thomas' 22 other dance, rag, minstrel and blues songs will live on from 78 to CD to MP3 and beyond. And, a world where Henry Thomas' jangly genuineness remains in print is surely worth living in.