James Henry “Son” Thomas, internationally famed blues musician and folk sculptor, worked as a porter at the Montgomery Hotel, which once occupied this site, after he moved to Leland in 1961. Born in the Yazoo County community of Eden on October 14, 1926, Thomas made his first recordings for folklorist Bill Ferris in 1968. He later traveled throughout the United States and Europe to perform at blues concerts and exhibit his artwork. Thomas died in Greenville on June 26, 1993.
Thomas was one of the most recognized local musical figures in Mississippi during the 1970s and ’80s. He performed throughout the state at nightclubs, festivals, private parties, government social affairs, colleges, and juke joints. He also toured and recorded several blues albums in Europe, and his folk art was featured at galleries in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Thomas learned guitar as a youngster after hearing his grandfather, Eddie Collins, and uncle, Joe Cooper, at house parties in Yazoo County. He later saw the two blues legends he regarded as his main influences, Elmore James and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, as well as Bentonia bluesman Jack Owens, from whom he learned the song “Nothin’ But the Devil.” After he began playing jukes with Cooper, Percy Lee, and others, Thomas became so well-known for his rendition of the Lil’ Son Jackson tune “Cairo Blues” that he earned the nickname “Cairo.” He was also known as “Sonny Ford,” so named for his childhood fondness for making clay models of Ford tractors.
In 1961, with a wife and six children to support on a sharecropper’s income, Thomas decided to move to Leland to find better-paying work. His mother got him a job at the Montgomery Hotel where she worked, but soon Thomas joined his stepfather as a gravedigger and later worked at a furniture store. His performances had been confined to juke joints and house parties until he met Bill Ferris, who began recording and filming Thomas and other local bluesmen in 1968. The Xtra label in England released the first recordings of Thomas, who later made albums for the Mississippi-based Southern Culture, Rustron, and Rooster Blues labels as well as companies in France, Holland, and Germany.
He also appeared in several documentary films. Despite his international renown and increased income, Thomas continued to lived in bare, dilapidated shotgun houses. It fit his image, he said, knowing that blues fans, art buyers, and photographers would come looking for him. The most important place for him to earn his living was often not out on the concert circuit but at his house, where visitors would show up at his doorstep with money to hear him play or buy a skull or coffin he had sculpted. Thomas’s gaunt appearance and the deathly themes of much of his artwork led to neighborhood rumors that he was a “hoodoo man.” But his magic lay in his ability to purvey his art and music, and his songs and stories were permeated by a droll sense of humor rather than darkness. His son Raymond “Pat” Thomas earned his own niche as an authentic bluesman and folk artisan, especially noted for his drawings of cats’ heads.
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