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.

"Before I started working on this," Babatunde says, "I had never even heard of Blind Lemon. I said, 'Blind Lemon? Isn't that a club in Deep Ellum?' But I'm like a lot of people who don't have any idea who he was or what he means. To know more about him and what it was people heard in him was fascinating. I have become enthralled with his music and the myth. Nobody really knew him even then. The fact of the matter is, he was the influence for so many people."

Govenar, of course, hopes Blind Lemon outgrows its basement in short time; he imagines it playing Broadway, something Dallas Summer Musicals director Michael Jenkins keeps whispering in his ear. "It's a little beyond my comprehension," Govenar says. "But it's possible."

Free Fugazi!
It's not a secret any longer: On November 20, the world's most righteous rock and roll band, Fugazi, will perform in Dallas, at the Galaxy Club in Deep Ellum. The show will begin at 5 p.m. and most likely end around 9 p.m.; it will also be, of course, an all-ages show. But the booking didn't come without a struggle; until late last week, the band didn't even have a venue in town, even though Fugazi did have Dallas penciled in on its tour schedule, sandwiched between dates in Oklahoma City and Houston. The problem was, Ian MacKaye and his bandmates couldn't seem to find a venue in Dallas where they could charge the usual five bucks admission, accommodate the more than 1,000 they expect, and restrict the serving of alcohol, since Fugazi plays only all-ages shows.

"It's amazing--anywhere in the world they can book a show, but here it's so prohibitive. Here, there's a problem with size, cost, everything," says Direct Hit Records co-honcho Kelly Handran, an old friend of Fugazi's who was in charge of finding a venue. When the show was still a rumor instead of a sure thing, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio in Denton was being bandied about as the venue of choice; but Handran says the venue is way too small, even though the club insists it can accommodate 500 people outside. MacKaye nixed the outdoors idea, fearing November 20 would be too cold. Handran says a venue like the Dallas Music Complex is too "cost prohibitive," while other locations have been a "nightmare" to deal with, since most either can't host all-ages shows (legally) since they have a liquor license or don't have the space to hold the loyal crowd. Or, in some cases, MacKaye just doesn't want to deal with greedy club owners and booking agents who don't understand the concept of charging five and only five dollars for a touring band. (The last time Fugazi played Dallas, they dropped a bomb on the Bomb Factory, which is so long-gone that dinosaurs don't remember it.)

Before the Galaxy Club came through, Handran said early last week that one possibility was the Lakewood Theatre, but more than likely, Fugazi was going to end up performing at a warehouse space yet to be determined. Of course, the band had no problems finding venues in Oklahoma City; Omaha, Nebraska; Charleston, West Virginia; and Austin and nine other cities on the itinerary. (Little Rock also was "venue to be announced"--oh, we're in such fine company.) Hootie and the Blowfish wanna play here? No prob. Alanis Morissette needs a club? You betcha. But Fugazi? Which only goes to prove the point one more time: Sometimes, Dallas kinda sucks.

Managing to stay friends
It's one of the music business' inevitables: At some point, a struggling young band will ditch its manager--you know, the guy who sacrificed his everything in the name of art and commerce--and soon enough a friendship dissolves into acrimony, back-stabbing, lawsuits. It's the oldest story in rock and roll, save for the one about hookers and guns and vials of coke, or something like that. But Mike Schwedler, former drummer in Killbilly and the man once known to his business associates and bandmates as "The Colonel," insists that when he and the Old 97's parted ways at the end of the summer, there were no ill feelings whatsoever. In fact, Schwedler says, he was a guest at guitarist Ken Bethea's wedding in September. "We're still really good friends," Schwedler asserts, proving there are exceptions to the rule, even though he has kept the news of his separation from the Old 97's a well-kept secret till now.

"Ken put it best when he said there was nothing bloody about the whole thing," Schwedler says. "Both parties just wanted to get a breath of fresh air." Part of the reason for that stems from the fact that in December, the band will present to Elektra Records the follow-up to last year's Too Far to Care, which the band just finished recording in New Orleans. (For the next two weeks, the 97's will be in Los Angeles working on overdubs and mixing.) Too Far to Care sold a respectable amount--around 30,000 copies, according to the label--but Schwedler insists "it's do or die for those guys," and that "it was time for a change for change's sake." So the band went its own way, recorded the album without a manager, and put its future in its own hands.

Elektra, of course, doesn't think it's "do or die" time for Rhett Miller and the boys. Joel Amsterdam, vice-president of press and artist development at the label, says, "Not at all. They've established a great base with the first record, and they have a lot of support here. Of course, we would welcome a jump to the mainstream, but going platinum on this record isn't crucial to the band and its relationship with the label." The forthcoming record, which isn't yet titled and was produced by Andrew Williams (yes, Andy Williams' nephew), is scheduled for release in March or April.

Schwedler also has severed his business relationship with the American Fuse, though they aren't "officially" untangled as of yet. Quite simply, Schwedler says, he is through with the business end of music for a while; he actually wants to start playing again, something he hasn't done since the end of Killbilly. (Schwedler did sub behind the skins during an Old 97's tour last year, replacing Philip Peeples at the Troubadour in Los Angeles when Peeples fell ill. "It was a nerve-racking experience, trying to be the manager who didn't get up there and blow it thinking I was still a musician," he recalls.) To that end, he is actually working once more with ex-Killbilly compadre Alan Wooley (who produced the Old 97's 1994 debut Hitchhike to Rhome). "It sounds good to have a manager," Schwedler says, "not to be one."

Topaz Awards, part who cares
Got a letter last week from Puppy (yes, just Puppy, goldangit), the bassist for Cresta, who says I was way too hard on Jenny Esping for winning all those Topaz Awards a few weeks ago from the North Texas Music Foundation--who, like, Esping works for. Seems Puppy, whose bark is...well, you know...is upset over suggestions that Esping's winning these Plexiglas doorstops--which, I might add, are hardly worth the stink they've caused, because it's not like they mean anything--had something to do with her being on the NTMF board.

"Jenny had nothing to do with the organization of the North Texas Music Festival or the Topaz Awards due to personal circumstances," Puppy writes. "Tragically, Jenny's father became very sick over the summer and passed away. Jenny spent most of her time at his bedside during this period and is obviously still grieving his loss. You really must be desperate to get attention at any cost if you are going to maintain that during this awful time for her family Jenny was concerning herself with exercising some kind of undue influence in order to win some local music awards. While I appreciate the shock value of your column, surely you have limits on the hurt you'll cause in the name of regurgitating gossip." Hey, fair enough. Down, boy.

Scene, heard
I don't get this either, but Captain Audio, the best "new" band in town even if its members are cagey veterans, will preview its forthcoming CD My ears are ringing but my heart's OK on November 20 at Sock Monkey in Exposition Park. (As an added bonus, Sub Oslo will perform.) But the album itself will not even be released till January 12--at the earliest. Sprechen ze tease...?

Talk about your tony gigs: After years of playing with Leroy Shakespeare and Ship of Vibes, pianist Arthur Riddles has himself a new job, performing every Saturday night from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the Pyramid Lounge at the Fairmont Hotel. The lounge is adjacent to the swanky-swanky Pyramid Room restaurant, where, I think, water goes for $134 a glass. Nice work if you can get it, but can you still smoke a blunt during breaks?

Send Street Beat nothing at all to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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