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Song: Bull Doze Blues (1928)
Artist: Henry Thomas, aka Ragtime Texas
Label: Vocalion Records
Canned Heat had a smash hit with their 1968 song ‘Going Up the Country.’ Few know that their song was actually a reprocessed version of a much earlier blues song by Henry Thomas, aka Texas Ragtime called Bull Doze Blues, recorded in 1928. Although the melody line and lyrics of the song are not all that unique, what makes it different is the lilting and somewhat happy feel coupled with the dark subject matter. What seems like an unusual instrument features heavily: the quills or panpipes, which the Canned Heat Version reproduced with a flute.
It is often claimed that the Canned Heat version is based on Bull Doze Blues. This is unfair to Henry Thomas as Going Up the Country should be considered a remake, with the lyrics changed to reflect a modern slant. In this case, the subject was the ‘back to nature’ movement of the 1960s.
First, how did panpipes end up in a blues song? While we tend to think of the black blues musician as a lone figure with an old guitar, many other instruments were traditional in African American music, including drums, gourd rattles, banjos, marimbas, and quills, not to mention foot-stamping, clapping, etc.
Bull Doze Blues is about a man who wants to leave Mobile Alabama and go back to Memphis, Tennessee. While many of the lyrics are handed down from the folk tradition, the theme is not just simple homesickness.
I’m going back to Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going where I never get bull-dozed
I’m going where I never get bull-dozed. To bull doze someone was to force them to do something, usually by whipping or flogging. During the late 1800s, if a black man refused to do something, such as to vote democrat, he would be taken to the woods and beat almost to death with a whip. Bull doze is derived from a Southern word meaning whip or cowhide.
Henry Thomas did not start recording until he was in his fifties when he made 24 recordings for Vocalion records. These included not only blues, but ragtime, gospel, and minstrel tunes. He influenced many besides Canned Heat, like Dylan, The Lovin Spoonful, and Grateful Dead. His song Fishing Blues is perhaps more famous. It was covered by The Lovin Spoonful in 1965 and included on their debut album, Do You Believe in Magic.