We were reminded just last week: First Presbyterian Church plans not only to install a recording studio inside 508 Park Avenue, a nod to the building's storied history as one of only two spots where bluesman and myth Robert Johnson recorded the music that serves as rock-and-roll's backbone, but to also turn the former Brunswick Records regional office into a museum. Yet till this afternoon, we had no idea what the museum would look like, what its theme would be or who would curate it. Now, we know: Alan Govenar, the renowned historian and filmmaker and playwright and author, will be the man in charge of what will come to be known as the Museum of Street Culture.
Govenar, who received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in April 2010, says he was approached by the church several months ago about running 508 Park Avenue. He told them he would do so only if he could be more than a consultant. "I wanted to be involved in all phases of construction and implementation," he tells Unfair Park. The church's management committee agreed. Today is the first time Govenar has acknowledged publicly his work with the church to rehab the long-empty site formerly owned by a liquor distributor.
This will be his largest local undertaking since documenting the excavation of the Freedman's Cemetery for Documentary Arts,
the 27-year-old nonprofit based out of the old firehouse at 5501 Columbia Ave. Govenar, of course, has written myriad books on Texas and local blues history -- among them the essential Deep Ellum & Central Track: Where the Black & White Worlds of Dallas Converged, Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound and Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues, which just received one of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections's Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.
Says Govenar, music will very much be part of the museum, which will be fill a building where some 50 performers and acts, in addition to Johnson and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, recorded during the first half of the 20th century.
"The specific focus of the museum is from 1929, when the building opened, to 1937, when Robert Johnson recorded," he says. "Of course there's the musical and cultural antecedents, but the core focus will be on that tremendously rich period of Dallas -- the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1929 to the recording of Robert Johnson, which is what defines the modern sound in contemporary music. I just felt it needed to be something groundbreaking and proposed to them the idea of doing a museum of street culture, which is the working name."
When asked to define what the museum will be, what it will contain and showcase, he reads aloud the mission statement hammered out with church officials in recent months:
508 Park is an innovative outreach program of The Stewpot and the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas that seeks to bring together people of all cultures and faiths through dialogue, education, music and art.
508 Park is a landmark building at the crossroads of the past and the present that works to transform lives.
508 Park is a multi-use facility with a music academy, a recording studio, a concert amphitheater, a rooftop terrace, a community garden, and the Museum of Street Culture.
The Museum of Street Culture features permanent and rotating exhibitions that link the growth of blues, jazz, country and other styles of vernacular music with the living history of tramp, hobo, and homeless art.
The museum is still a long way from becoming a reality: Govenar's in the process of meeting with architects and designing "a flow" through the building.
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But, he says, "The idea of this museum is it will permeate the entire building. The idea is all the wall space within the building will have a unified concept; additionally it will carry into the outdoors -- the design of the wall space all the way to the back of the building. The specifics are still under discussion, but I think it can be really exciting. The idea is by broadening this concept it becomes a museum like none other in the United States -- or world, for that matter.
"But think about it: If these people didn't play music during that period, by today's parlance they would have been called homeless. Music was performed on the street. There were no nightclubs. There were ballrooms, where jazz was played -- in the Majestic, in the Pythian Temple. But when you're talking vernacular music it was performed in the street -- Coley Jones, T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon, Blind Willie Johnson, the parade culture of the 1920s and '30s. The street was a much more vibrant place. Then, if you carry that into the present: What's the street culture of today? There are people who play music on the streets today, there's the graffiti culture, the homeless culture. If one looks at where Dallas is going and at the emphasis on generating new life downtown, it's moving back to wanting a culture on the street. They're letting vendors sell things on the street. They want people to come out of the buildings. The whole focus is shifting."
The first public event planned at 508 Park Avenue will be some time in the spring, close to June 19 and 20 -- which will mark the 75th anniversary of when Johnson recorded at 508 Park Avenue with producer Don Law. Govenar will also begin shooting a documentary about the rebirth of 508 Park in March. We will have more Friday, after Govenar and I tour the building later in the week and he further explains his dreams and desires for each floor, each square foot. But he is quick to remind, again and again: This wouldn't be possible without First Presbyterian and its Stewpot, which rescued 508 Park and now intends to open a museum and recording studio and outdoor amphitheater where, for the longest time, there has been nothing.
"It's a breath of fresh air," Govenar says. "It should have a public mission. This is enduring. They have a stake in that part of Dallas. And their mission is a model for what can be done nationwide."