Son Ford Thomas
James "Son" Thomas was one of the great Delta blues musicians, as well as a self-taught sculptor. Born in Eden, Mississippi, he was taught to play guitar by his uncle and grandfather, but began to play seriously only after reaching the age of 50. Soon afterward, Thomas' bottleneck blues style was enthusiastically received all over the world.
Thomas worked for a while as a grave digger and this profession most certainly stimulated his creation of clay caskets and skulls with human teeth. He said he made his first skull as a little boy to scare his grandfather who was afraid of ghosts.
Thomas' music and sculpture were first documented by William Ferris, a folklorist and Director for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Mississippi. In 1981, Thomas' work was included in the "Black Folk Art" show at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.
His sculptures were not "pretty". He never meant them to be anything but "ugly -- to scare people off," so he said. He taught himself how to sculpt and taught himself how to play the guitar. He learned how to play the guitar by tying a wire string to the side of his house and playing on that one string until he developed his skill. His music expressed the life he lived, a life that was not an easy one, but one of poverty, bad luck, and blues.
He had in early years worked as a grave digger, picking cotton and playing in juke joints in small southern towns.
Anton Haardt first met Thomas in 1982 in Washington D.C. at the Corcoran Black Folk Art Exhibit. She describes their meeting in her book on Mose Tolliver:
"Son Thomas had been invited to Washington to exhibit his curious clay skulls and animal figures. It was during one of the worst blizzards in Washington's history and I had come from the sunny South as Mose Tolliver's chaperone for the Corcoran. We were registered in our comfortable rooms and had ventured to the designated hospitality room, where all the artists would regularly gather. There Son Thomas was sitting sipping his "medicine" (his word for rum). Son was complete with bandages around his girth -- the results of a bullet wound. He explained that he had quarreled with his wife over his girlfriend, and his wife had shot him directly in the stomach. He invited us to sit down and offered us a drink, and I neglected to realize that his 151 proof rum was not just Chablis.
"I didn't see Son again for ten years until I travelled the rural Mississippi highways to his Leland home. That next time was in the summer of 1992. His health was poor, and he had aged considerably since I had seen him last. He was on medication and pretty much house bound, resulting from a massive brain tumour operation that had left him with seizures. Gone were the wild days of drinking and womanizing, and most of his musician friends had died in those past ten years. Even though he played his guitar less, he still had appeared earlier that year at one of the local Blues Festivals in Clarksdale and had been invited to a Blues event in Tokyo later that month. He still welcomed the chance to pick up his guitar for me ---all I had to do was suggest that he play. He was proud to show how his talent matched the legend. Even though his voice had aged, it still had that surprisingly sweet sound, as I remembered him on his lullaby about a son named "Rainbow".
"I asked him how he got started making skulls. He said in his low soft voice, 'Them skulls, I used to make those to scare my grandfather. Like the time I tied a string to one of the bedsprings under my grandaddy's bed and late at night to scare him. I would hide and pull the string and shake the bed. It scared the daylights out of my grandfather.'
"After Son told a few tales and played a couple of tunes on his guitar, he announced that his most recent created art object in the corner was for sale. It was a weird fiber-board coffin, almost larger than life, satin-lined. Inside was a molded female clay head painted black, complete with earrings and a black curly wig. I bought that life size coffin from Son, and I loaded it into the back of my van to return across the Southlands back to Alabama.
"Later in the journey I purchased a bushel of ripe Mississippi cantaloupe for my mother, and stored them in Son's coffin. I couldn't help but imagine what would happen if a policeman pulled me over for speeding. He would surely think the gumbo clay corpse and coffin with all those cantaloupes inside was not the usual cargo."