“Say you’ve been a-fishin’ all the time.
I’m a-goin’ fishin’ too.
I bet your life, your lovin’ wife
Can catch more fish than you.”
Musicians in the modern pop era are generally self taught explorers, chasing after sounds that they discovered at a very young age. These sounds may come from hundreds of miles away, or from a past long gone from the present generation. Some would say the early blues masters were well ahead of their time, influencing generations of musicians to follow well after their heyday. The epic six LP compilation “Anthology of American Folk Music” was sent like a message from the past to the young blues, folk and rock players to develop in the 1960’s. Released in 1952 on Folkways Records, the boxed set was a precursor to the modern compilation package. It was assembled by musicologist Harry Smith and is now considered one of the single most influential musical collections ever released. It was a treasure trove of long-unheard blues, gospel, folk and country songs that would become staples of the folk revival.
One of the standout tracks on the set is ‘Fishin’ Blues’ by Henry Thomas. The song is best known in a modern version by bluesman Taj Mahal, but the original has a certain patina unattainable in a modern recording context. The song features Thomas, playing guitar, singing and playing a pan flute…simultaneously. By injecting the song with an infectious chorus and riff, Thomas creates a song that could be from any time period. One of the most endearing and mystical aspects of the recording is that little is known about Thomas. This recording, while incredibly influential with the release of the “Anthology…”, was recorded during a flurry of recording activity for the bluesman. His only recordings were made for Vocalian Records between 1927 and 1929. After that, the Texan’s whereabouts are unknown. Any impressionable mind would surely be awed by both the sheer talent of the musician as well as his mysterious background.
The “Anthology of American Folk Music” was reissued in 1997 by the newly formed Smithsonian Follkways Records on six compact discs. The reissue is a beautiful replica of the original LP package and contains multiple essays and commentary on Smith’s original track listing. Harry Smith was a known bohemian who worked in music and film until his death in New York City in 1991. His legacy lives on through multiple projects, but none have influenced the world we live in more than his epic “Anthology”.
(This is the original Henry Thomas version from the “Anthology”)
(Here is a live version from blues revivalist Taj Mahal)