Interview with Marcellus Thomas
LISTEN HERE: (17:25) Marcellus Thomas
Interviewed By: Chris Strachwitz
Date: March 1961
"I recorded Marcellus Thomas during my first session with Big Joe Williams in Los Gatos, CA - and I think it may have been Marcellus who drove Big Joe and his wife and child from Oakland down to my shack in the hills of Holy City where I was living that first year as a school teacher in Los Gatos. I wish I had recorded him some more talking - but since I did not consider him an interesting or great singer I did not have time that night either - they had to drive back to Oakland since I had no space to put them up for the night. That's how it was." - Chris Strachwitz - July 2017
This is an unedited interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Marcellus Thomas: My Name is Marcellus Thomas I was born in Texas, place called Mart, Texas in 1913. And I was there, I remember Blind Lemon when he used to come down from Waco, Texas. He come down there to play. He used to play on Main Street there between Manigold’s store and Ed Wilson's restaurant. I was quite a young lad at the time, but I remember he used to sing a song about "He walked from Dallas clean into Wichita Falls." And then he'd had another one he'd sing about "There was a mean black snake been suckin' my rider's tongue."
I remember Lemon at the time when he use to come down and walk in Big Creek. Big Creek was dry at the time and there'd be so many people up on the side of the banks that they had to get on the side of the banks. In other words couldn't nobody see him, because people was tall, and so they'd walk up and down that creek with the barbecue what they called the 19th of June. Just him by himself walking down in the ditch and they was continually pitching money to him down there, and sometimes guys would have to get down there behind him and get the money to put it in his cup.
But sometimes he would come down and sit there all day long and he could sing practically all day if he wanted to. Blind Lemon was natural born blind, because I remember…. See my daddy was a barber there in 19 ... say 18,19,20 and 23 and 24 in Patterson's barber shop. That’s where Lemon would come a lot of time.
Chris Strachwitz: Do you want to sing a couple of verses?
Thomas: Well yeah, there were couple of verses of it. It went like this. …..
"Oh, tell me, pretty mama, how you want your rollin’ done. Set your face to the ground and your noodle up to the sun."
Should I sing that other part of it you think or not? Not put that other part in. ..
"She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs, She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs, You know she's got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye. My baby got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye."
That's the record that he put out in '26 and I think he had a little difficulty about it. But I remember I liked Texas. I used to follow him all the time there in Dallas on central track, cause I knew him.
I got a chance to see Texas, I got a chance to see Blind Blake, I got a chance to see Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson, Frank Stokes, Jimmie Rodgers, and oh several other guys. Some of them I have almost forgot. That's where I learnt that yodeling. I liked that yodeling by Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers was a wonderful singer. He was another.
Strachwitz Do you want to tell something about the first time you saw Jimmy Rodgers?
Thomas: It was in Sylvester, Texas in 1925. A place you call Sylvester Texas out in west Texas on the track called the old rail. Old rail track. It run back up in the country there someplace. It run to a place you call Sweetwater come to Sylvester went through Royston went through McCauley, Hamlin all out through the country there. It went way back up in there somewhere. They called it the Old Ramp Route. That's when I took a notion to listen and learn to like Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie was a wonderful yodeler. But the people here yodeling today...
Strachwitz What sort of a club was it?
Thomas: Well it wasn’t exactly say a club, it was like a place where like the carnivals come. And they have a carnival and it'd come in town, and different people would appear with that carnival to draw a crowd. That's how we got a chance to see him. It wasn’t a place.
Strachwitz What were some of the songs he sang?
Thomas: Jimmie Rodgers sung a song about "I'm gonna buy me a shotgun with a great long shiny barrel, and I'm gonna kill that rounder that stole away my gal." And then he'd yodel. [Yodels] That’s how I liked his yodel. Yodeling is good now, but the people makes it different than what it was at the time that he had it.
But I got the chance to see all them musicians ...
Strachwitz Who was the other fellow you saw at that circus? The other singer?
Thomas: Oh, a fellow you called Frank Stokes. He was an unusual type of guy. He was likable by everybody and his music was likable and he could play a guitar in a different style than anybody I've ever seen. But I've forgotten most of his songs. It’s been quite a while. I was pretty young at the time, I don’t know. But I remember Frank Stokes singing. He was really wonderful. My people have some of his records now, but I couldn't get them away from them for nothing.
We had another fellow at that time used to preach, they called him Reverend Gates. He preached a song about the Devil and the Flying machine. You remember J.M. Gates? And he had a guy that played for him all the time. They called him Deacon something they called him. But I mean they was wonderful too. I never got no more of they albums or anything.
Strachwitz You said something about Lillian Glen.
Thomas: Oh Yeah. Lillian Glen Smith. She used to sing at the Harlem theater that was on Central and Swiss street and then later moved on Ellum and Central. She's a minister her now. She's preaching someplace in Oakland. I don’t know I can get in contact with her but I don't know her address right now. But she's a preacher now. Her husband was a preacher to but he passed a few weeks ago.
Strachwitz How long did she play the blues?
Thomas: I don't know how long she played but she stayed in the blues field quite a while. But I don't know exactly the date that she sung. I heard one of her records here not long ago out of the KRE Berkeley. KRE Berkeley has some of her recordings now. They play them every morning about 3 o’clock and quite naturally we be asleep unless we get up to get a drink of water or something, and that’s when we might hear it. You're not really sleepy you turn the news on to see what you can listen at, see.
One reason why I keep the news on a lot of times, I have made one recording or so myself but I likes to listen to hear things to find out what's happening. Sometimes you can get them late in the morning. Sometimes you get them early, see. So I keep the radio on about half the time.
Strachwitz You mentioned something else about when you saw Texas Alexander. You said…
Thomas: Yeah, yeah. Texas Alexander. Last time I saw him, its funny to me. That guy really sung. And I mean he made some real records. And he was a really good singer. And the world knows him that knew him knew he could sing. But it’s something funny to me, I don't know, he just didn't sing no more. Last time I saw him was in 1942. I was in Dallas, Texas on Central and Ellerman he was singing a song about Tom Moore and them four Moore brothers. And Texas Alexander had quit his singing and he was working at the Texas Texaco service station down on Swiss street. I used to follow him at night around sometimes for two hours at night, just walk up and down the track with him to hear him sing. He knew me and quite naturally he didn't mind if I go along with him and he'd put a few pennies in my pocket too you know, and I enjoyed that. And I always liked music. But that's the last time that I saw Texas and that was in 1942. Dallas, Texas.
Strachwitz Could you get that song together, that Tom Moore?
Thomas: I could get a little bit of it but I can’t remember the whole works. But anyway I could give you an idea about the way it went when Texas Alexander sung it.
"Mr. Tom Moore, Mr. Tom Moore I declare, is a man I surely like. Now if your little woman quit you, you know Mr. Moore will go and bring her back.
Every morning for your breakfast Mr. Moore will give you ham and eggs. But you're liable to get up so soon Monday morning you catch a mule by its hind legs.
He used to whip you with a pistol, I declare he beat you with a single tree. I could hear them people crying, "Lord have mercy on me".
But I love Mr. Moore, man. I declare he's the meanest man I ever seen. Mr. Moore said if you keep yourself from the graveyard, I declare I'm going to save you from the pen."
And I don't remember the rest of the words of it though. I’d have to write it out. But I can get the words and get the names of the brothers. There’s four brothers of them. But anyway, they said, “Mr. Tom Moore and them four more brothers are the meanest men I've ever seen. Say they bought Kaufman County, you know them fools done fenced it in.
Strachwitz Could you repeat that line? What county does that refer too?
Thomas: Lets see. What the county is… Kaufman county.
"Mr Tom Moore, Mr Tom Moore I declare is the meanest I ever seen. You know them fools bought Kaufman county and declared it and fenced it in."
I don't know exactly. I’d have to get the script. I cant remember, it’s kinda hard, Its been a long time since I heard it. From ’42 up until now has been quite a while. But I got it written out someplace. I could get it and write it all out and get it prepared together and let you have it ad you’d see how it goes.
Strachwitz When was the last time that you saw Blind Lemon?
Thomas: The last time that I saw Blind Lemon was back in 19 ... and about 20 ... 3 or 4. That's the last time I saw Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was at a place they call Mart, Texas. And he used to sit on Main Street between Manigold grocery store and Ed Wilson's café. Next door was a hotel they call Old Man Abram. He was a fella had been there for years. And he'd go there sometimes and sit in the pit. And they'd draw a crowd from there. That was in 23 and 4. That was the last time I saw Lemon.
But all this is true to the best of my knowledge, because we really knew him. He was my daddy’s best friend.
Strachwitz Do you remember one of the other singers you mentioned, this guy Willie, he played guitar with.
Thomas: His name was Willie. I don't know his last part of his name. Its been so long I forgot it. But I would never forget his first name because the guy really could pick a guitar. But he was there on Central and Ellum. But the first of his name was Willie. Because see ... Texas. Lonnie used to pick for Texas. Lonnie Johnson. But then I don't know what happened, but he got this fellow named Willie. I don’t know what it was, but he could really pick a guitar. I think it was a either a 9 or a 12-string guitar that he was picking for Texas. I think it was 12-string.
Strachwitz You mentioned this central tracks. What area does that include?
Thomas: Central track was down mostly on the outer edge of town, I’d call it. Of course they tore it all out now. I learned that they have built freeways and things there. And they had to move. So I don't know what place they went. But at that time central track was just like a little Harlem. Like little Harlem was up in New York. You could go down there and practically find anybody, see anything, anyway, anything you wanted to see. You want to see musicians. I seen guys playing music with spoons. I seen guys blowing their thumbs down there. Blow their hand, you know the thumbs? There would be rub boards. They would make music out of anything. Those guys were musicians down there. I don't understand, but they could really do it. And I was down there all night long sometimes just to watch them. They could dance. They could do any kind of dance. Any kind of instrument they could play. I got a kick out of going down there. And that's how come Texas all them would go down in there, because…
Strachwitz What streets did that include?
Thomas: That included central track and Ellum Street. That’s where it was. Of Course there was Main. It was business all up and down there. Up and down, up and down. Swiss. But Swiss and Ellum, see, and Central track was about the popularist it was there, because that's where all the music, the buildings and the business places was located. I guess they had anywhere from 5-10 cafés right around there in one little spot. When Texas and them would play they'd get right there on central track and play. But here's the track sitting here and the businesses all on that side on the sidewalk, and the people be ganged up there, and they'd be sitting right out there in the middle of the track. Because the train never did come down there about once a week, and they'd be switching then. You know it hardly ever come down there, and they’d just sit right out in the middle of the track. Sight to see. '42 was the last I saw of Texas Alexander. At the Texaco Service Station on Swiss Street.
Strachwitz Was that a pretty rough district?
Thomas: Oh yeah. They call that place, at the time, I went down there, my cousin told me, he says, "Don't go down there" I said, "Why?" He says, "That's what you call the butcher pen." That was a rough place. But I found out down in there it was rough, but if you knew your associate and tend to you business, why, you didn't get mixed up. But the minute you got off with somebody you didn't know, that's when trouble started. Those guys down there. You could find anything practically you wanted. If you were looking for trouble you could find it, and if you wasn't looking for it you could find it. But the average time, if a guy knew you they wouldn't bother you, you know?