REPRINT FROM MISSISSIPPI MAGAZINE -- MAY/JUNE 2003 (used with permission)
COMPOSITE MADE FROM -- pages 39, 40, 41 & 42
Music has always played a major role in the lives of Frank and Eddie Thomas. Growing up in Iuka, their mother was a choir director, a position Frank holds today. During the 1960s, Eddie played trumpet in an award-winning local band and later learned to play the guitar.
Today, it's the blues that has captured the brothers' energies. Their latest project combines authentic Delta blues songs and arrangements with some of the very spots where those melodies were born.
Frank and Eddie first attracted attention several years ago when they created a unique audio cassette self-guided driving tour of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The 8 1/2 -hour series, "Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness," included original music and tales keyed to the historic road's mile markers. After experiencing success and critical acclaim, the tow realized they might be on to something, and they turned their attention to Mississippi's other famous road-Highway 61. The brothers planned to research, then record, 61 songs while journeying down the legendary "Blues Highway." Hours of listening to scratchy records at the Blues Archive of the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture enabled them to figure out how original composers tuned their guitars for certain songs. They also learned where many songs had first been performed. They compiled a list of 120 significant song writers and musicians, whose work they whittled down to 65 songs-they couldn't bear to narrow it to 61-for the four-CD series, entitled "Angels on the Backroads." The first two CDs were released in the fall of 2002 and the third in April; the final CD is timed for release by this summer, since 2003 has been designated the Year of the Blues.
On October 9, 1998, they made their first recording amid the hay bales of a barn on Stovall Farms outside of Clarksdale. "I remember the date and associating it with the weather," said Eddie, who sings and plays the music while Frank handles the technical side of the recordings. "Muddy Waters had left Stovall Farms (where he had worked for much of his youth) to catch the train to Chicago, taking the blues with him. We has struggled so hard to set up in the huge red barn where Muddy Waters might have been, where he had walked around. Sitting in the barn, a huge flock of birds flew past, and the way the music sounded in that barn brought chills."
Later that day, they taped "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson while sitting on a bench in front of a closed store in Robinsonville, and Willie Brown's "M & O Blues" while sitting on top of some tanker railroad cars sidetracked alongside Highway 61. "It's like a crow's nest up here looking out over ocean waves of cotton," Frank wrote in the liner notes that accompany the first CD. "This day lives a life of its own. A couple of chords, a few gusts of wind, and slowly our ship of blues begins to move us on a sunward journey."
Back in their Iuka studio, they realized two things: the wind could be heard along with the music, and this project wasn't going to be as easy as they had imagined. They considered recording everything in the studio, but they knew that wouldn't be true to their mission to use the locations to introduce folks to Mississippi and its musical heritage.
"It was maybe a year before we made the next recordings," Frank admitted. While in Memphis on business, they decided to set up at the Mississippi River. "lt was an easy day," Frank recalled, "windy, but we got a good recording." Eventually they decided the serendipitous background sounds were an integral part of the settings.
Over the next few years, they worked their way down Highway 61 playing music and making audio and photographic records at each stop. They share that journey on their website, www.angelsonthebackroads.com. In Memphis, they recorded Frank Stokes' "Downtown Blues" while riding the Main Street trolley. "I couldn't hear what I was doing," Eddie said to Frank when they finished. "Was I in tune?"
Using a vintage trumpet, they re-created the opening notes of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" on top of Memphis' Falls Building. In 1914, Handy had played that song for the first time in the same spot -then the "swanky" Alaskan Roof Garden.
While playing "Shetland Pony Blues" by Eddie James "Son" House in a field near Robinsonville, a mockingbird landed on a telephone pole nearby and sang along. When the song ended, the mockingbird stopped.
The brothers learned that in 1903, W.C. Handy had fallen asleep at the Tutwiler depot waiting for a train that was nine hours late. During the night, he was awakened by a little man playing the guitar and singing "Goin' Where the Southern Cross' the Dog." It was the first time Handy had heard the blues.
Frank and Eddie set up for "Yellow Dog Blues" in Moorhead, the destination of Handy's little man. They recorded in a gazebo near the tracks where the Southern Railroad crossed the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, known by locals as the "Yellow Dog." Just as the music ended, a dog barked in the distance. "We couldn't have placed it better," Frank said. "We said at the time nobody would ever believe it was real."
At Mounds Landing, where the Mississippi River levee broke in 1927, they played "High Water Everywhere" by Charlie Patton. They found the spot near Vaughan where Casey Jones wrecked the Cannonball, and they recorded "Kassie Jones" by Furry Lewis almost a hundred years to the day later.
They received permission to record inside the derelict King Edward Hotel in Jackson. "The policemen waited outside...while we set up amid the rubble," Frank said. "This was a place where governors and dignitaries had once thrived. It's a bit frightening to think we might well be the last musicians to ever play there." In the studio, Eddie added layers of sound - piano, drums, trumpet and even a jug - to a few of the songs to make them sound as if a full band were playing. Frank engineered the sound mix and wrote the liner notes for the CDs with Eddie's help. "I enjoyed taking the old songs apart to learn how the musicians tuned and played their guitars," Eddie said. "Frank is the technical wizard, making sure the music comes out the way it's supposed to sound."
Along their journey, they made friends in unexpected places. In Avalon - the kind of place where the front of the sign says "Avalon" and the back reads "Avalon" - they found a man working on a motor in a repair shop. When they mentioned they were interested in blues music, the repairman said, "Folks from California, England, and all over ask about John Hurt all the time." An older gentleman leaning against the bench told them he had known Hurt. He led them to the Valley Store where Hurt used to play music. They set up on the same spot for "Avalon Blues."
"I could almost feel John Hurt looking over my shoulder," Eddie said. "Sometimes there's such a connection. It took my breath away."
On the final day of recording, National Public Radio documented Eddie's performance of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" in the choir loft of New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral. The song pays tribute to the warm and moving spirit of church music and its influence on blues and jazz. Frank said, "As the last notes faded away on Eddie's guitar, all of us there could hear music being played outside in Jackson Square, and then the cathedral bells chimed two o'clock. It struck us that nothing had stopped just because we'd completed our journey. The music continues."
The "Angels on the Backroads" CDs may be ordered by calling 800/896-9892, or through the Thomas brothers' website, www.angelsonthebackroads.com. Frank and Eddie now plan to take their music back down Highway 61 on a concert tour to high schools.
This article written by Carolyn Thornton
From a downtown Memphis rooftop to the choir loft of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Frank (left) and Eddie Thomas paid tribute to blues history by recording their own renditions at some of the same Highway 61 locations where the legends began.
Singing birds, barking dogs, and gusting winds only added to the authenticity of the brothers’ live music recordings.
The brothers’ journey traced the path of the Mississippi on the Blues Highway.