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  • The Devil and his BluesJames “Son Ford” Thomas
  • William R. Ferris (bio)

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“The blues is nothing but the Devil,” James Thomas (here) once said. “If you play spirituals, and you used to play the blues, the next thing you know, the Devil gets in you, and you’re going to start right back playing the blues. You can’t serve the Lord and the Devil, too.” All photographs courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Leland was my gateway to the world of Mississippi Delta blues. It was here during the summer of 1968 that I first met James “Son Ford” Thomas, a gifted musician, storyteller, and sculptor. We became friends, and our lives remained closely tied together for over twenty-six years until his death in 1993. Allen Ginsberg referred to Thomas as “my guru,” a description that clearly fit the work we did together over the years. Thomas was a regular visitor and performer in my classes at Jackson State University, Yale University, and the University of Mississippi.

When I first entered the black community in Leland, I asked if there were any blues singers in the area and was quickly directed to the home of James “Son” Thomas. I found his home in the section of Leland known as “Black Dog” and asked his wife, Christine, if he was home. She said there was no one named James Thomas living there and asked why I wanted him. When I explained that I was writing a book and wanted to include him in it, she admitted that she was his wife and told me how I could find him. Her suspicion of whites was not surprising.

I soon found James Thomas and began a friendship that deepened throughout the summer. I could measure the depth of his comfort with me through the reactions of his children toward me. They were much more direct than their parents in showing feelings of caution toward me as a white outsider. When I first entered their home, they avoided me and spoke little in my presence. Later, when I had established a relationship with their father and spent many hours in their home, the children would run to the door and, holding my hands, lead me into their home, telling me jokes and stories they knew and wanted me to record. They often held my hands while I spoke with their father about his work.

This expression of affection through physical touch was characteristic of all age groups in the black community. When I was introduced to James Thomas’s friend Shelby Brown, the blues patriarch of Leland who was known as “Poppa Jazz” because he had run a blues joint for over thirty years, we shook hands. Afterwards a friend of Shelby’s asked me, “Do you know what you just shook?”

“No. What?”

“A handful of love.”

An extension of this warmth was the amount of verbal banter that occurred whenever Shelby or “Poppa Jazz” met his friend Gussie “Tobe” Tobe. Tobe turned to me once and said, “I want you to whip his ass for me. If you don’t, I’m going to go home for my shotgun and shoot the son of a bitch dead.”

Shelby turned to me and said, “I’m waiting for him. I’m waiting for him.”

Shelby then stood shirtless and walked around with his chest pushed forward. Tobe whispered loudly to me, “You wouldn’t think that man’s eighty and can walk around sometime without his cane.”

When Son mentioned that the white funeral home where he worked had asked [End Page 6] him to dig a grave for a funeral the next day, Shelby replied, “Another rich one gone. Boy, you going to have plenty of money. Lend me a dollar.”

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After Gussie Tobe saw his friend Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown, he turned to William R. Ferris and said, “I want you to whip his ass for me.” Gussie Tobe (foreground) with James Thomas...


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