By Jim Dees
This time of year is blues season with music festivals and outdoor concerts popping up like wild onions. The blues are a good teacher and that includes the late James “Son” Thomas of Leland.
In the 1980s, Son would often be booked in Oxford to play the Gin, or a frat party, or at the much-lamented Hoka Theater (now Harrison’s 1810 Green). On these occasions I would be dispatched to make the two-hour ride to Leland to fetch him. On these drives I discovered who Son was as a person and musician, as well as how the world saw him.
One incident was particularly telling. Son and I were northbound on Highway 49, speeding along in my 1976 Gran Torino. I had my shirt off and my (long-gone) shoulder-length hair blowing in the wind. Son was hunched over his portable cassette player, listening to Elmore James, smoking a Camel down to the nub – when suddenly there was a siren and blue lights.
A Mississippi Highway Patrolman pulled us over in sight of the front gate of Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi’s notorious state prison. The trooper exited his vehicle and, in a surprise move, walked around to the passenger side of the car where Son was seated. He then cast a glance into the back seat where he spotted Son’s guitar case.
The trooper spat his words: “What are you? Some kind of jazz band?”
Son looked at the trooper with his unique countenance of innocence. “Naw suh,” Son replied. “The blues.”
The trooper finally came around to my side of the car and began the process of running my license (miraculously clean) and writing a speeding ticket. As he was about to send us on our way, he reached across me and grabbed my discarded shirt on the front seat. I suppose this was a quick check for drugs. (Clean again).
After the encounter, Son and I drove for a minute in complete silence. The front gate of Parchman rolled by and Son checked his watch.
“Well,” Son mused, “if he’d a taken us in, we’d a been there just in time for lunch.”
Son passed way in 1993 but not before receiving national recognition, including an invitation to perform at the White House. The words “quiet dignity” come to mind.
In more recent years, local blues music, like any worthy art form, has expanded with new, younger practitioners taking the music into the digital age. This dynamic is on full display every June at the North Mississippi Hill County Picnic just across the county line (and the Betty Davis store) into Marshall County.
Over two days, two dozen acts take the stage for an appreciative, if occasionally rain-drenched crowd, that come from across the southeast. Cedric Burnside, Eric Deaton and Kenny Brown have all received Grammy recognition, and all can be heard at the picnic, up close and sweaty.
This fascinating music has survived decades of trials to persevere, a life lesson for all of us. Likewise, the musicians are the most down-to-earth, genuine people who just happen to have dedicated their lives to making joy out of pain. Can there be a higher calling?
James “Son” Thomas had dignity you could dance to; a humility born through hard times and hatred, but his smile and humor shone through.
See you at the picnic and sing one for Son.
This year’s picnic is June 24-25 at Waterford, MS. Info: https://nmshillcountrypicnic.com/