Thomas Edger Shaw, who like Mance Lipscomb got a late opportunity to shine after a lifetime of developing his gift. And like Mance, he had plenty of inspiration to draw upon, learning to play from the granddaddy of them all, Blind Lemon Jefferson. Born in Brenham in 1908, Thomas forged his own style after studying first hand with Blind Lemon, Blind Willie Johnson and J. T. Funny Papa Smith. He also briefly accompanied Texas Alexander. He may be the only bluesman to have known and played with all of these essential Texas bluesmen. He finally got to record his first album at age 62 in 1970 for Advent Records. Like Mance and his old Washington County neighbor Blind Arvella Gray, he could not resist recording his own version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children” and like them made it his own and thrilled crowds with his ability to do both Blind Lemon and Blind Willie favorites. Thomas travelled many miles all over the country to find his audience, and like another Washington County neighbor, L. C. Robinson, ended up in California in 1934. Transplanted Texans on the West Coast loved that he could lay down Jack O’ Diamonds, Two White Horses in Line, and See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, received right from Blind Lemon’s corner to their ears.
Tom’s musical journey was begun while playing with his father, an accomplished and popular performer in Washington County, Texas, who exposed him to the harmonica, guitar and accordion. After his father passed away in 1917, He played in a band with his brothers and his Uncle Fred Rogers, who kind of treated him as the young and dumb kid in the family, and he developed quite a chip on his shoulder because of it. In this band he was competing with cousins Willie and Bertie Shaw, both great blues guitarists, his brother Leon on the piano, and his other brother Louis on the harmonica. There never really was a hole made for him.
While working in the cotton patch in Moody, Texas, he finally met Blind Lemon Jefferson one weekend in 1927 while playing in Waco and the energy and enthusiasm he gleaned from him made him put down the old harmonica and pick up the guitar. Jefferson himself would show him how. Shaw bought a little Stella for 8 bucks from Aegis Patterson, another blues buddy, and his life was never the same.
For the first time he thought he could do this!
One night in 1929 in west Texas he was thrown into an impromptu show down with Ramblin’ Thomas and gained a great deal of confidence when he felt like he really smoked him, as the audience seemed to go nuts over the Blind Lemon songs he knew. Later he would get to meet J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith while picking cotton in Oklahoma, and soon he could play his songs as well as the master, or so he remembered. He even recalled once beating Mance Lipscomb in a guitar picking show down.
His gig with Funny Papa Smith ended abruptly when “Funny Papa” was hauled to jail on murder charges in 1931. Thomas played to entertain Texas Alexander as well. Alexander, never a guitarist himself, supposedly proclaimed him the winner in a show down with several blues guitarists. After Alexander was thrown in prison for murder as well, Thomas Shaw went out on his own, ending up in California.
He also hung out with Mance Lipscomb, T-Bone Walker and Smokey Hogg. His acquaintances read like the Who’s Who of Texas Blues.In 1941 he did a radio gig in California and played live blues to California blues lovers. And then a long period of playing just because he loved to play.After moving to San Diego in 1930, Shaw got into the wrecking business — which he had just sold — and played his music in gospel churches. He became Reverend Shaw of Noah’s Temple of the Apostolic Faith, which met in the lower half of his house for many years . Shaw learned skill from Blind Lemon Jefferson, but he explains that his music was instilled in him earlier than that. “My daddy was a preacher and a composer, and he’d sing to me while I sat in his lap. I paid him no heed, but after he died his songs came to me overnight.” “It was a gift God gave to me. Still, his time came when a blues revival came in the 70’s and Thomas was there to sing the old songs, just like he remembered them, to a new generation of enthusiastic listeners. He found new purpose in doing something he loved, something his whole family teased him unmercifully about, but they were mostly dead now, and it was up to Tom Shaw to carry on the family music legend. And so he did. And he was always glad to tell you all about it.
Shaw recorded for Advent, Blue Goose and Blues Beacon and his work appeared on some compilation albums as well. Thomas Shaw died in San Diego as a beloved California bluesman in 1977.