Monday, September 11, 2006

Before the harmonica: Quills

Long before Honer's harmonica was widely available in the southern states the quills were the bluesman's pocketable instrument. Quills are sections of cane reeds cut to various lengths and lashed together. The tone of each cane is determined by it's length and diameter. The lower end is left closed by a cane node and the player blows across the open top to produce a note. If this description sounds familiar it is because the quills are the North American cousin to the panpipes of Peru and Bolivia.

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.

Henry Thomas - Old Country Stomp.mp3

Henry Thomas - Fishing Blues.mp3


Anonymous Dan said...

Thanks for the education! I will search high and low for "Bull Doze Blues". I always wondered where "Fishing Blues" originated, and now I know. It sounds amazing. It's good to know that artists who have covered it have remained true to the original.

September 16, 2006 6:45 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Dan - Taj Mahal's version of "Fishin' Blues" has long been a favorite of mine also. If you like Canned Heat's "Goin' Up The Country" you'll love "Bull Doze Blues". Canned Heat also remained true to the original.

September 16, 2006 8:09 PM  

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