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Blues music is a true expression of folk art, but in the case of James "Son" Thomas, it was only one form of his creative genius that helped him gain recognition. The Blues were always present in his life, but it wasn't until his "discovery" in the mid-1960's by William Ferris that they truly became central to his financial income. Ferris' documentations of Thomas' life in both book and on film helped to gain him worldwide attention which took him to Europe and an encounter with a president.
James Thomas entered the world of the Delta on October 14, 1926 in Eden, Mississippi. He never really knew his father and was raised by his maternal grandparents, who also gave him his lifelong nickname "Son" as a term of endearment. Every Saturday, the family traveled to Leland, Mississippi to visit James' mother and sister.
As a young boy, Son developed two interests that would play a significant role for the remainder of his life: music and sculpture. His sculpture was made from clay he collected from banks of the nearby Yazoo River and Son had a fondness for creating animal forms. He also enjoyed making trucks from the clay, which earned him the nickname "Ford". The art took a darker side, though, when he decided to play a joke on his grandfather who had a deep fear of the paranormal. He shaped a frightful skull, complete with teeth made out of corn and placed it in a dark location that would become fully lit when his grandfather turned on a light. The effect was terrifying and Son would go on to shape these skulls the rest of his life, often using actual teeth that he would collect from local dentists. His clay art alone would have made Thomas' career as a folk artist. Many galleries, including those in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. held shows displaying his work.
Of course, Son's other interest was music, particularly the Blues he heard listening to his Uncle Joe Cooper. Other influences came from family records, featuring local Delta artists like Tommy McClennan, Big Boy Crudup and Skip James. His uncle taught him a few chords on the guitar and Son sought the instrument every chance he could. His uncle would charge the youngster to play, so Son would wait until he would leave for work to practice without his uncle's knowledge. He eventually was able to earn enough money working in the cottonfields to purchase his own guitar from Sears & Roebuck.
As he grew older, Son began to frequent juke joints in Yazoo City, where he was exposed to artists like Rice Miller and Elmore James. Elmore would allow the youngster to play along, thus giving Son the opportunity to learn from one of the most renowned guitarists in Blues history. These lessons also paved the way for Son to start working alongside his uncle at house parties for which he was paid a dollar a night.
Over the ensuing years, Son Thomas built a repertoire of songs that would stay with him his entire life. Numbers like "Catfish Blues" and "Cairo Blues" would become synonymous with his performances. It was said that he had played "Cairo Blues" so often that this was how he earned yet another nickname: "Cairo" Son Thomas
Unfortunately, as was the case with many fine musicians in the Delta, Son Thomas' work was unknown to the rest of the world. Thomas made his living for the majority of his life as a grave digger, and later when health woes began to take their toll he worked in a furniture store.
In 1967, researcher William Ferris "discovered" Thomas in Leland, Mississippi, where the musician had made his home since 1961. Thomas would become a major focus in the works of Ferris, documented extensively in his book "Blues From The Delta", and in five films: "Mississippi Delta Blues" (1969), "James 'Son Ford' Thomas: Delta Blues Singer" (1970), "Give My Poor Heart Ease" (1975), "I Ain't Lying" (1975) and "Made In Mississippi" (1975).
Through the exposure Ferris brought to him, Son Thomas found himself a sudden attraction at Blues festivals around the world, billed as one of the Delta's last living originals. He made his first trip to Europe in 1981 as a member of the celebrated American Folk Blues Festival tour and he made several more trips across the Atlantic during his lifetime and recording a handful of albums, most notably: "Highway 61 Blues", "Son Down On The Delta", "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Delta Blues Classics" and "The James 'Son' Thomas Album". He has also been featured on a number of compilation recordings as well, most recently on the Evidence reissue of "Living Country Blues".
In 1981 the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., held an exhibit displaying the folk art of the American South. The sculptures of James Thomas were a prominent feature of the show. One of the attendees at the show was First Lady Nancy Reagan, whom Son would have his photo taken with, which he proudly displayed in his small shotgun home thereafter. This encounter with the First Lady also worked into Son being asked to perform at a Republican Party fundraiser in Mississippi in 1983 which featured President Ronald Reagan as the keynote speaker. Son Thomas was paid $100 for his appearance.
Son Thomas suffered from poor health his entire adult life, which gave him the appearance of being much older than he actually was. Back pains and emphysema were constant plagues. In 1981, he was accidentally shot in the stomach and in 1991 he had surgery for a brain tumor. But, despite his fragile condition, Son Thomas continued to perform. In May of 1993, he suffered a stroke that would be the fatal event to Thomas' unfortunate health. He would never leave the hospital in Greenville, Mississippi. He died there on June 26, 1993 following a heart attack. James "Son" Thomas was only 66. Read more about James "Son" Thomas on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.
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1926-10-14 to 1993-06-26