BOMB THE ROOT: The James 'Son' Thomas Interview

James "Son" Thomas
James "Son" Thomas

BOMB Magazine is a Brooklyn based arts publication. Since 1981 the magazine has been bringing artist's perspectives to the public. Unlike traditional arts criticism, BOMB asks artists to interview each other, and the resulting conversation is published. Though the transcripts are edited, the artists participate in every step to ensure that the final piece is authentic to their voices.

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To celebrate the completion of the BOMB Digital Archive, The Root is launching BOMB The Root, a thirteen-part series of interviews, audio pieces, and video that we have carefully culled from BOMB's collection. The series will highlight the many interviews with black artists and intellectual luminaries published by the magazine over the past 28 years.

Born in 1926 in Eden, Mississippi, James "Son" Thomas was a legend in the Southern blues scene known for his deft guitar playing that typified "bottleneck blues," a Southern style of blues where a broken bottleneck was used to play slide guitar. Thomas, however, had other artistic talents. Considered one of last century's finest American folk artists, Thomas' clay figures, including human heads embellished with real human teeth, have been shown in folk art exhibitions all over the country.

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Since Thomas died in 1993, this interview, conducted 10 years earlier, is one of the gems of the BOMB Digital Archive. In it blues guitarist-and legend in his own right-Philip Walker talks to Thomas about making his first sculpture (of a mule) and what inspired his life-long art making. Though the interview was edited before publishing, you will notice that BOMB kept intact Thomas' highly particular way of speaking, this interview is a fantastic document of a specific, Southern dialect and masculine sensibility.

And of course, don't miss Thomas' story about meeting Nancy Reagan shortly after his wife had shot him in the stomach. You can read the full interview at BOMB Magazine.

-Adda Birnir

INTERVIEW EXCERPT:

Phillip Walker: You live in Leland, now. Where were you born?

James “Son” Thomas: Eden. E-D-E-N. Eden, Mississippi. About three miles east of Eden. On the river. 1926. October 14th.

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PW: How did you get started doing sculpture?

JT: My uncle used to play in clay; used to try to make something look like a mule because, at that time, black folks didn’t have nothing but mules. Like you see tractors in the fields, now—they didn’t have nothing but mules in the field. And that’s all he’d try to make was a mule. So I tried to make a mule, and just kept on trying to make the mule. Finally, I could make the mule. Then, after that, I started making different things, you know, like birds and rabbits squirrels…stuff like that. And from that what caused me to start making a skull, I made a skull to scare my grandfather with.

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PW: For a joke?

JT: Yeah. See, he was scared of ghosts. And I made the skull to scare him. It worked but he made me take it out the house. I was just a teenager and he made me take the thing out the house. I’ve got some real teeth up there on the shelf that somebody gave me. I believe it was in Memphis. A jar full. I just ain’t got around to doing no work.

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PW: Are you going to put them in skulls?

JT: Yeah. I’m going make them into skulls and faces and different features, you know. What I’m trying to do, which I could have done did but I’ve been throwed behind.

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PW: Are those human teeth?

JT: Yeah, I got human teeth up there. And I had some more human teeth had gold on ‘em and I jumped up and sold this. I sold this for $100 when I could have doubled that money, ‘cause it had gold on it.

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PW: What do you think is the most important thing to consider when making a sculpture?

JT: O.K. You don’t look like Bo, Bo don’t look Joe, Bo don’t look like my boy. Everybody’s a little different and some people’s favor resemble each other. Now, that’s the stuff you got to watch. When it comes down to that sculpturing work, I don’t care how much school learning they got, they can’t equal up with me. They ain’t no need to trying, they can’t do it.

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PW: Because they’re not watching that?

JT: They don’t know about that. See, they read up on mine, and I think up on mine.

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PW: When you look at another piece of sculpture, do you think you can tell whether they did it that way—by the book—or thought it up?

JT: Oh yeah, I can tell. See, white folks, they reads up on this. That’s like you have a puzzle: this here piece don’t go here, it goes here. That’s the way you do that. But now, when you come down to this sculpture, you do this dabbing and you can’t mess that up…Just say you got a puzzle and you want to make a dog. OK, you know if you try to put the tail here, and the dog’s backbone goes here…you can’t put the dog’s backbone there because that’s the tail.

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PW: So when you do a sculpture, it’s like doing a puzzle?

JT: Right, you got to figure that. But now, the different features in the world, you can’t figure that out because it’s too hard, because everybody don’t look alike. You go down there and you see twenty suckers on the street and don’t near one of them suckers look alike. Some of them suckers down there got money and some of ‘em ain’t; their features don’t look alike. I can look at them and tell what I’m going to do. I’ll tell you what I can do: I can let you tie a rag around my head. Bet you five hundred cash dollars right today. You tie a rag around my head where I can’t see nothing, give me a ball of clay, I’ll take that clay, if you want a quail, I’ll make you a quail, I’ll make you a damn quail and I ain’t even had nothing on my eyes. Can’t see nothing. I’m talking about blindfolded.

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PW: Just by feeling it?

JT: Feel it. Feel my way out. I’ll feel it out right today for five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars I’ll bet you.

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PW: So, when you’re sculpting, the most important thing is to feel it rather than to see it?

JT: That’s the most important part: feel it. Feel what you do. Some folks go…”I got to see what I’m doing”… You ain’t got to see. If you know what you doing, that’s all you got to know.
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Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 6, Summer 1983.

Used with permission. All rights reserved. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.

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