James “Son Ford” Thomas was born on 14 October 1926 on a farm near Eden in Yazoo County, Mississippi. His life embodied a spectrum of black folklife, including blues music, clay sculpture, and storytelling, all of which are rooted in Mississippi Delta cultural traditions. Thomas learned to play the guitar by watching his uncle play and then imitating the chords in his own tunes. As a teenager Thomas moved to Leland, where he began playing blues on weekends. He played juke joints and barrelhouses around Leland and Greenville through the 1960s. Beginning in the early 1970s he performed at colleges and universities, including Jackson State University (1971–72), the University of Maine (1972), Tougaloo College (1973), and Yale University (1973–76). He participated in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., and in festivals in Norway and Germany. He recorded in the United States, Holland, West Germany, and Italy.
Thomas was also a sculptor, largely teaching himself. As a child he began making clay imitations of animals, patterning his first work after similar figures made by his uncle. He later made clay models of Ford tractors, earning the nickname Son Ford. Apart from his uncle, Thomas had no continuing contact with artists who worked with clay. His work was highly personal, and perhaps the most unusual figures in his repertoire were heads and skulls, many of which have openings in their tops and serve as containers or ashtrays. Animals, water, and death were recurring motifs. His clay faces presented images of the black man as poised and proud. Son Thomas’s sculpture attracted national attention through a 1981 exhibition, Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. His work also was exhibited in 2015 at New York University’s 80 Washington Square East Gallery. Thomas has been featured in several films, including James “Son Ford” Thomas: Delta Blues Singer (1970), Mississippi Delta Blues (1974), and Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen (1975).
Thomas performed until the early 1990s despite health setbacks such as a brain tumor and emphysema. He suffered a stroke and died in Greenville on 26 June 1993.
- William Ferris, ed., Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (1983)
- William Ferris, Blues from the Delta (1984)
- William Ferris, Highway 61 Blues: James “Son” Thomas (Recording 1983)
- James “Son Ford” Thomas: The Devil and His Blues Exhibition website, http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/80wse/gallery/2015/06/jamessonfordthomas?utm_source=redirect&utm_campaign=80wse_gallery-2015–06-jamessonfordthomas