Before the harmonica: Quills
The quills are often referred to in oral histories but few written accounts exist. There are some mentioned in early plantation slave documents dating from the late 1700s and some mention of their use in New Orleans in the 1800s. Considering how popular the quills were, according to oral history, it's odd that there isn't much written about them. Recordings are even more rare. Alan Lomax recorded a few examples during his field recording trips to the South.
One of the few artist to have some commercial recording success playing the quills was Henry (Ragtime Texas) Thomas. Thomas was born in Big Sandy, Texas, in 1874. One of nine children born to freed slaves who sharecropped on a cotton plantation in northeast Texas, Henry Thomas learned to hate sharecropping at an early age and left home to make his living as a rambling musician. He hopped a freight to his freedom and made a living playing his music on the trains of the Texas & Pacific and the Katy Lines between Dallas and Chicago. Between 1927 and 1929 Thomas recorded twenty-three sides for the Vocalion label in Chicago.
Henry Thomas had a significant influence on music of another generation. His recording "Bull Doze Blues" was retooled by Canned Heat as "Going Up The Country" featured in the movie "Easy Rider". His "Fishing Blues" was beautifully recorded by Taj Mahal in 1969, and "Honey Won't You Allow Me One More Chance?" was revised and covered by Bob Dylan on his "Freewheelin'" LP in 1962.
It is a shame that the quills have fallen from favor, they have such a joyous sound.