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Trading Verses: James "Son Ford" Thomas and Allen Ginsberg

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 53-60 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0005

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William R. Ferris: "Thomas sang the blues for a large, appreciative audience. During the program I noticed a member of the audience in the front row who was thoroughly enjoying the music. It was Allen Ginsberg." James "Son Ford" Thomas, courtesy of the William R. Ferris Papers, Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Introduction

On December 27, 1980, I traveled with blues singer James "Son Ford" Thomas to Houston, Texas, where we appeared together at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association on an oral and written literature panel that was organized by Michel Fabre. I spoke about the blues, and Thomas sang the blues for a large, appreciative audience. During the program I noticed a member of the audience in the front row who was thoroughly enjoying the music. It was Allen Ginsberg, with my old friend Gordon Ball (who took photographs of the Beat Generation for more than two decades and has written important books on Ginsberg). At the end of our program, Gordon Ball introduced Thomas and me to Ginsberg, who invited us to his room in the hotel to play more blues. We accepted, and I taped and photographed Thomas and Ginsberg as they spoke and sang together.

At the end of our visit, Ginsberg said to me, "He's your guru, isn't he?"

I replied, "Absolutely. He is."

This exchange between Ginsberg and Thomas is a historic meeting of two great American bards. They remind us that spontaneous exchange of lyrics and oral performance are central to both beat poetry and the blues, and no two artists better exemplify their power than Allen Ginsberg and James Thomas.

—William R. Ferris

A Musical Conversation

William Ferris:

Remember how you used to trade verses with your uncle Joe Cooper? You and Joe would sing back and forth.

James Thomas:

You want me to trade verses with him?

Ferris:

Why don't you try doing that and see what you can come up with?

Thomas

(laughing): I will. All right.

Allen Ginsberg:

I'm willing if I can follow him.

Thomas:

If you know something about the "Catfish," we can do that.

Ginsberg:

I got to figure out the scheme first.

Thomas:

Okay.

Ginsberg:

Play on.

Thomas

(playing guitar and singing): Well, I wish I was a catfish . . . swimming in the . . . deep blue sea . . . I would have some of these Mississippi women . . . fishing down deep . . . deep for me . . . Well, my momma . . . she was a seamster . . . and she learned me . . . how to sew . . . Well, my daddy he was a sawyer . . . and he learned me how to saw . . . he learned me how to saw.

Ginsberg

(singing with Thomas's accompaniment on guitar): Well, my papa . . . was a poet . . . and he learned me how to speak. Well, my papa . . . was a poet . . . and he learned me how to speak. And if you will give me that old quart, a word or two I'll speak.


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Ginsberg: "I'd like to hear something you made up the words to." Thomas: "Something I made up?" Ginsberg: "Yeah." Thomas and Ginsberg, 1980, courtesy of the William R. Ferris Papers, Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[They laugh.]

Thomas

(sings): Baby, if I hit it . . . tell me I can get it . . . if it takes me all night long . . . leave so early the next morning now, your real man never know.

Ginsberg

(sings): Well, the last time I was in Houston, I got in the County Jail. I was sleeping at a bus station, and a man came along, and he said, "Well, say, you got to find . . . somewhere else. You can't stay here tonight."

[Guitar and laughter]

Thomas

(sings): Well, ever since . . . yes, ever since . . . my easy rider been dead . . . I taken rocks to be my pillow and broken ground to be my bed.

Ginsberg

(sings): Well, I come back into Houston, thirty-three years long gone. Yes, I come back into Houston, thirty-three years have gone by. I still can't find my way to sleep in this town.

Thomas

(sings): Well, I'm going . . . yes, I'm going . . . and your crying won't...



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