Best Of Dallas

Dallas Music Experts Riff on the 10 Blues Songs That Every Dallasite Should Know

From outlaw country to Western swing to chopped and screwed hip-hop, Texas has long played by its own rules, no matter the genre. But the Texas blues remains one of the Lone Star State's most enduring contributions, and in many ways Dallas is the cradle of that history. In a past lifetime (or two or three), when the blues was still shaping rock 'n' roll, Dallas musicians were helping to shape the blues' very parameters. Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan are all giants of the form. But for any true blues fan in Dallas, these 10 songs are essential listening.
10. "Ice Pick Blues" by Whistlin' Alex Moore

Deep Ellum is the home to much of Dallas music in the 21st century, but it was first and foremost the home of the blues. That was nearly 100 years ago during the Great Depression, when "chock house" owners moved their bootlegging venues to evade police and men like Whistlin' Alex Moore provided their music. Moore, a pianist, is mostly only known to true aficionados, but his eerie, high-pitched vocals and penchant for whistling add an ominous edge to the bloody lyrics in "Ice Pick Blues." "Alex passed away in the back of a Dallas city DART bus not long after I met him," recalls The Kessler's Jeff Liles. "Recordings of him are very hard to find."

9. "Why Don't You Eat Where You Slept Last Night" by Zuzu Bollin

Zuzu Bollin was such an obscure figure to wider audiences that, when he resurfaced in the 1980s, many who knew of his music had long since assumed he was already dead. Assembling his first combo in the late '40s, Bollin's sound was a mix of swing and early electric blues, drawing a clear line to the rock 'n' roll that emerged a few years later. The scruffy "Why Don't You Eat" featured "Fathead" Newman and LeRoy Cooper, both future members of Ray Charles' band. "Although not a big name with the public, he was well thought of among blues musicians," says longtime Dallas DJ and music historian George Gimarc. He died, for real, in 1990 at the age of 68.  

8. "It's a Dark Day" by Rev. Horton Heat

Much of the blues' true impact, locally and otherwise, was made in the first half of the 20th century, and most of the music's key figures have long since passed away. But it's by no means a dead art form, and even when Deep Ellum re-emerged as a haven for punk rock back in the '80s, the blues came along with. One of the key architects of that revival was Jim Heath, better known as rockabilly singer Rev. Horton Heat. "It's a Dark Day" offers a modern take on the blues, filtered through alt-rock and reverb. "Most of Jim's repertoire has kind of a good time, rave-up party vibe," notes Liles, who's known Heath for over 30 years. "But this early song totally hints at what trajectory his career might have taken if he had chosen to explore more of a blues direction instead."

7. "Goin' to Dallas" by Lightnin' Hopkins

Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was a giant of Texas blues, and one of the key figures in the transition from acoustic country blues to urban electric blues in the 1940s and '50s. He's predominantly associated with Houston, but he had deep connections to Dallas, including having learned to play the blues from no less than Blind Lemon Jefferson. But his inclusion on this list is owed chiefly to this particular song, "Goin' to Dallas," a loping tune about betting on horse races. "I like [this] tune because it speaks to a nostalgic era in Dallas history," says blues singer Charley Crockett. "He's talking about this cold, black mare, which could be code for anything — and I really like that." 
6. "Deep Elem Blues" by Various Artists

While its name is identifiably Dallas, "Deep Elem Blues" is a song with no fixed history; the spelling of the location even varies, depending on whose version you listen to. It started off sometime in the early 20th century as a generic song called "Deep Elm Blues" about a red light district, but eventually it evolved into a bastardized version of Deep Ellum. That was thanks largely to the Shelton Brothers, who gave the song a place and country harmonies (just to ensure that even calling it a straight blues song is problematic). It would later become a staple of the Grateful Dead's live sets, but its true legacy lies in immortalizing a colorful chapter in Dallas blues history. "There's [even] a verse about corrupt policemen," says Stevie James Trio guitarist Stephen Ketner.

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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage