When you delve into the blues, there are many directions you can choose to go and one inevitable direction will be backward. No matter where you start in your investigations, you will eventually wonder about its source and at some point you will find yourself listening to Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues." A massive hit, "Crazy Blues" effectively kicked off the first great blues craze and it opened the gates for record companies to inundate the market with this blues and that blues and those blues and some other blues. While many of these records ended up as true classic of a golden era, you will find just as many more "blues" that actually have little or nothing to do with the real deal.
You can go back further still, before sound recordings, in the quest for the source and you will find it becomes more and more obfuscated as you go back. Tantalizing details will emerge and connections to far earlier, distant sounds will be made and yet you will find its exact origin is not to be obtained. You will never be able to put your finger on it and say, "This is the source…this is where it started.” This is a large part of the appeal, it is the mystery of the blues. It seems to defy any historical archaeology, as if it has always been there sulking and sneaking around the corners, an unassailable basic human condition, just waiting for you to hear and feel it. Whether it bears the name "blues," it exists in all locales with many different accents and tongues. If you listen closely you will find it to be universal.
Among the greats of 1920s American blues/folk recordings are those of Henry Thomas. He recorded 23 sides for Vocalion Records between 1927 and 1929, offering reels, gospels, ballads, minstrel pieces, folk ragtime pieces, and blues. Because of this stylistic diversity, he is rightly referred to as a songster rather than a straight blues performer. A unique aspect of his sound is that he often accompanied his outstanding guitar playing with a set of quills—musical pipes made from cane reeds with a similar sound to the zampona played by musicians in Peru and Bolivia. Thomas also has the distinction of being one of the oldest musicians to record during this time, born in 1874, he was in his 50s when he began making records. He is one of the links, a progenitor, in the transformation of early recorded folk-song styles into ragtime, blues and jazz. Through his recordings we are offered a small window through time where one can imagine the sounds and songs he heard as he was growing up and how they are reflected and refracted in his own style. It is a rare chance to hear and look back at the origins of the blues.