Eyesight to the Blind

A historian and a playwright bring a Dallas blues legend's story to the stage

Alan Govenar is the patron saint of lost causes, which is the highest compliment anyone can be paid in a city where history is replaced by a parking lot or a mega-grocery store every few days. Thirteen years ago, while researching his oral history Meeting the Blues, he shook hands with Alex Moore, a bona fide blues legend, if your definition of legend is someone time has ignored. Govenar dedicated his life to making sure Moore received in old age the acclaim and audience he had never found during his heyday of the 1920s and '30s, when Moore recorded for Columbia Records. Govenar got the pianist, whose ragtime-and-blues hybrid packed an Ali punch, into area schools, where he educated children about the blues; he was a walking show-and-tell. Govenar also nominated Moore for a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment of the Arts, which Moore eventually won--not long before he died alone on a Dallas bus, alone, forgotten once more.

Govenar is this city's very best friend: No one, not even SMU professor and author Darwin Payne, has done more to preserve Dallas' cultural heritage and rescue it from the trash bin of history. He has the photographs, the recordings, and the videotaped interviews to prove it, and he would be only happy to show them to you. That is, after all, what he does.

In a few weeks, the University of North Texas Press will finally, after years of research and writing, publish Govenar and co-author Jay Brakefield's history of Deep Ellum and Central Track, which renders too many myths and legends into black-and-white fact. (So to speak: Govenar and Brakefield's book is subtitled Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged and deals heavily with how blacks and Jewish merchants co-existed in Deep Ellum at the beginning of this century.) It's a complete, illuminating book, less a history tome than a never-told tale full of wonderful music; it should come with its own soundtrack. And the book should be read by anyone who cares about looking backward before taking a single step forward. It's a cautionary tale and a celebration all at once, proof that Dallas does indeed have a past beyond tomorrow.

Please, someone give a copy to the mayor.
Included in the book is an entire chapter on blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, a man about whom so little is known; if anything, he is renowned for a single song, "Matchbox Blues," covered by the likes of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and a very young band named the Beatles. There exists only the one picture of Blind Lemon--and no, he's not named after the restaurant in Deep Ellum. Govenar and Brakefield have turned Jefferson into a flesh-and-blood performer by contradicting myths and uncovering the truth; hell, they even found out where he bought his clothes, at the Jewish-owned Model Tailors in Deep Ellum, same place as George "Machine Gun" Kelly.

That Govenar would want to do more with Jefferson's life story--he was born in Couchman, 75 miles south of Dallas; rode the rails; recorded for Paramount; befriended no less than Leadbelly and Aaron "T-Bone" Walker--seems only logical. Jefferson's life is too big to fit on the printed page.

So, come April, Govenar will debut Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues, a staged version of Jefferson's life that he co-wrote with playwright-actor-director Akin Babatunde of the Dallas Theater Center. Their musical--which is being sponsored by Govenar's Documentary Arts organization, the City of Dallas, and, believe it or not, the Dallas Summer Musicals--will inaugurate the basement theater space in the Majestic Theatre, which is not far from where Jefferson got off the train and performed during the 1920s. And, just as appropriately, the production--which stars R&B-gospel singer David Peayston as Jefferson--is told through a man in the present looking for his hero in the past.

"Blind Lemon is the most seminal blues singer to come out of Dallas, and he's probably the least known," Govenar says. "I had written so much about him, it just seemed like a natural. It's something set simultaneously in the past and the present. It begins with the obscurity of Blind Lemon in the present and then goes back to the past. It's about the quest to find identity. It's about a person looking back, and about the person himself."

It's suggested to him that it sounds like Citizen Kane set to music. He laughs. "That would be nice."

The original concept was hatched about four years ago, during Govenar's regular trips to Paris, where he delivered talks about Texas blues. The French government originally gave him seed money to begin working on such a project. But Govenar really began working on it 18 months ago, when he met Babatunde and began refining the idea; in time, a story about Jefferson evolved into one also about Dallas in the 1920s.

Several months ago, they debuted a small piece of the work-in-progress at the National Conference of the Association of American Cultures, a national arts organization. In attendance was two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson while writing such plays as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (about the exploitation of black musicians by white-owned record labels). Govenar and Babatunde recall Wilson's enthusiasm for their project, which encouraged them to finish Blind Lemon.

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