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.
5. "Palace of the King" by Freddie King
When the blues morphed into rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, and especially when it got picked up by British rockers a few years later, it played a huge role in the rise of the guitar hero. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were but a few who were (generously) inspired by electric blues guitarists, and one man who influenced almost all of them was Dallas native Freddie King. His songs "Hide Away" and "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" were hits in their day and have been covered frequently, but "Palace of the King" stands out as an ode to his hometown. "A great song about Dallas performed by the Dallas blues master whom every real guitar player has emulated/copied/ripped off," says When Dallas Rocked director Kirby Warnock.
4. "Me and the Devil Blues" by Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson may be the most towering figure in all of blues music, but he's not from Dallas. He's not even from Texas. The Mississippi native, however, recorded nearly half of his catalog (a mere 29 songs) here in Dallas, forming a crucial part of local music lore. One of those songs, "Me and the Devil Blues," is as haunting as any blues song ever, and distills Johnson's work (and myth, as he was alleged to have sold his soul to the devil) into two and a half haunting minutes. Dead at the age of 27, Johnson's music wasn't rediscovered till the early '60s. "He was almost completely a historical accident. He could've been easily forgotten," says Pat Bywaters, who's restoring the building where Johnson recorded back in 1937.
3. "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" by Blind Lemon Jefferson
There may be no more important, and tragic, figure in Dallas blues than Blind Lemon Jefferson. Born blind, he was discovered performing on the street corner in Deep Ellum during the 1920s. Much as Johnson was whisked away to record in Texas, Jefferson was sent to record in Chicago, where he recorded a number of truly seminal blues songs, including the beautifully desolate "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" (which was covered by, among others, a young Bob Dylan). "If you look at ... the music that likely influenced Johnson, there is only one Texas musician, Blind Lemon, and that was because he achieved a national audience," says Bywaters. But Jefferson was to die young himself, at the age of 36, and in a cruel twist his grave would remain unmarked for many years.
2. "Texas Flood" by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
By the time Stevie Ray Vaughan broke it big with Texas Flood in 1983, the blues had seemingly been relegated to being a thing of the past. Punk rock and hip-hop had made even rock 'n' roll obsolete, but Vaughan — a native of Oak Cliff who spent many years in Austin before returning home to Dallas — gave it a new lease on life. Taking cues from Hendrix and Albert King, he played big, bold riffs that gave the Texas blues sound a whole new meaning. No song may be more instructive to how Vaughan rebuilt that music in his own virtuosic image than the title track from that debut album, which has itself become a bona fide blues standard. "It is, in many ways, the top of the ladder many of us are trying to climb when we think of blues guitar," says Ketner.
1. "Call It Stormy Monday" by T-Bone Walker
Blues standards are a tradition almost as old as the blues itself. Even in the days of Mississippi Delta blues, there were certain songs that every blues singer worthy of the name had a version of. But, much as "My Favorite Things" is to jazz players, none may be more widespread than "Stormy Monday." "A blues standard, covered by just about everyone, but written by our own Oak Cliff T-Bone," Warnock says of the song, referring to another Oak Cliff native, T-Bone Walker. A giant of early electric blues, Walker penned the song in the late '40s, which later became a hit in the hands of Bobby "Blue" Bland and has been covered by everyone from B.B. King to the Allman Brothers Band. With its mournful shuffle and bleak lyrics, "Stormy Monday" really is as blue as you can get.
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