20 - The Thomas Family: “The First Family of Boogie Woogie”
by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie
George Washington Thomas, Jr. and his younger brother Hersal were regarded as seminal influences by later Boogie Woogie players, such as Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis. Although both George and Hersal died tragically at a young age after they moved to Chicago, their having brought Boogie Woogie from the Piney Woods of East Texas to the Big Cities —first to Houston, then to New Orleans and Chicago—substantially influenced the course of popular music. Although Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Pete Johnson are often considered the prototypical “Big Three” of Boogie Woogie, there is no question that at least Ammons, Lewis, and Johnson drew much of their inspiration from George and Hersal Thomas, as well as from Clarence “Pine Top” Smith, who also suffered a tragically young death after moving to Chicago.
Since George Washington Thomas, Jr. was born in 1883 in Little Rock and since his father, George Thomas, Sr. became a deacon at the First Shiloh Baptist Church in Houston, and since younger sister Beulah (A.K.A. Sippie Wallace) was born in Houston in 1898, it is possible to trace what would have been the most likely migratory pathway used by the Thomas Family as they migrated from Little Rock, AR to Houston, TX. Before 1900, railroads would have been the most likely form of transport for African Americans and others travelling such a distance. Coming into contact with steam locomotives is consistent with their chugging sound, felt by many to sound like Boogie Woogie. Since George W. Thomas, Jr. says that he based his “Hop Scop Blues” (later “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues.”) on music he heard in East Texas, it would be logical to surmise that the migratory pathway of the Thomas family took them on the shortest railroad route that ran from Little Rock, through east Texas, and finally to Houston. Such a migratory path would have also taken the Thomas family through Marshall, Texas, the headquarters of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, and the only site (as far as I know) to have ever manufactured steam locomotives in Texas. Given these reasonable assumptions, the Thomas family probably relied on three railroads in the Jay Gould system to transport them from Little Rock to Houston as early as 1883 (the year of George Thomas, Jr.‘s birth) , but no later than 1898 (the year of Beulah Thomas’s birth).
(Blue Highligting indicates the probable migratory pathway of the Thomas family after the birth of George W. Thomas, Jr. in 1883 - illustrated by Nonjohn. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.)