I first encountered the Delta blues in Leland. During the summer of 1968, I met James “Son Ford” Thomas, a gifted musician, storyteller, and sculptor. We became friends, and our lives remained closely tied together for over twenty-six years until his death in 1993. Allen Ginsberg told me that Thomas was my “guru,” a description that clearly fit the relationship I shared with him over the years. Thomas performed regularly in my classes at Jackson State University, Yale University, and the University of Mississippi. We also traveled together to the Smithsonian Festival on the Mall and to the White House, where President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes— who was also from Leland—had Thomas open his daily press conference by singing a blues song.
When I first entered the black community in Leland, I asked if there were any blues singers in the area and was quickly directed to the home of James Thomas. I found his house in the section of Leland known as “Black Dog” and asked his wife Christine if he was at home. She said there was no one named James Thomas living there and asked why I wanted him. When I explained that I was writing a book on the blues and wanted to include him in it, she admitted that she was his wife and told me where I could find him. I understood and respected her suspicion of whites.
I soon found Thomas and began a friendship that deepened throughout the summer. I measured the depth of our friendship through the reactions of his children toward me. They were much more direct than their parents in showing feelings of caution toward me as a white outsider. When I first entered their home, the Thomas children avoided me and spoke little in my presence. Once I had established a relationship with their father and spent many hours in their home, when I arrived, the children ran to the door,