First published: Fall 2008
"Unusual". That was how the landmark Corcoran exhibit, Black Folk Art in America, described James "Son" Thomas in 1982, and the description still holds true. Not only was he unusual in having two equally touted careers as a self-taught sculptor and a blues musician, but the intensity of his work could be just as singular. Today, fifteen years after his death, Thomas’s creative achievements still resonate: a stark, uncompromised lifework even when compared to the overall distinctiveness of black vernacular expression of the Deep South. The blues, for Thomas, was not simply a song, but a philosophy that begot a rugged self-determinism associated with many blues singers, as well as strong aesthetic choices in his art and music.
Born in 1926 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, in the state’s soil-rich Delta region, James Henry Thomas was raised by his maternal grandparents, who sharecropped in the small town of Eden; of the decision not to live with his mother in nearby Leland, Thomas simply stated, ‘‘She seemed like she was mean." As a child, Thomas did what most children in rural areas do: he hunted, swam and fished, and he helped his grandfather, Eddie Collins, tend the cotton fields. But Thomas was also an admitted loner, and with few friends around he found ways to entertain himself, especially making things such as fish-nets and his first clay figurines.
Exposed to music at an early age, Thomas grew up hearing his grandmother play piano, country-dance numbers and guitar blues by his grandfather, and commercial 78s on the family gramophone. As a result, his adult repertoire, like that of many Delta blues players, became a personalised mix of traditional and popular sources.
Around the age of eight, Thomas learned from his uncle, Joe Cooper, the two skills that would guide him the rest of his creative life: how to play the guitar and how to sculpt in clay. After a man bought a box of clay horses from the fledgling artist for three dollars, Thomas discovered he could make more money sculpting than working all week in the fields. His modelling talents also earned him his nickname: when the clay Ford tractors he made at the age of eleven proved popular, people started calling him variously "Thirty-Seven Ford" (for the year 1937), "Ford", "Son Ford", "Sonny Ford", then simply "Son". The mischievousness of youth contributed as well to his first skull, which found audience with his superstitious grandfather. Thomas explained (offering a glimpse of the humour that abides in his otherwise severe works): "The first time I made a skull I was living with my grandpapa in Yazoo County. I made a great big skeleton head and I had corn in his mouth for teeth. I brought it in the house and set it up on the shelf. We didn’t have no electric lights then. My granddaddy was scared of dead folks, and one night he stayed up late. He came in and lit him a match to light the lamp and, first thing, he looked in the skeleton’s face. Instead of pulling the globe off the lamp, he jumped and dropped the globe and run into my room and told me, said, ‘Boy, you get this thing out of my house and don’t bring another in here. I already can’t rest at night for spooks now.’" (Thomas was also superstitious and would cancel a musical performance if he had had a bad dream the night before.)