Over the weekend, a friend wondered precisely what good reason this city had for not having a Dallas music museum in, say, Deep Ellum, where Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly hopped off the train some 80 years back and birthed this city's first "music scene" on their way to poverty, prison and eventual immortality--though not necessarily in that order. Funny thing, I told this pal (himself a musician of some renown in a band of some note); exactly 10 years ago I pitched the very idea in the Observer, and it went over like a neon Pegasus, which is to say even I'd forgotten about it till I extracted the story from our Web site's sputtering search engine.
Of course, I'd like to think the idea still has merit; God knows those empty buildings in Deep Ellum, the largest collection of early 20th century storefronts left in town that are on Preservation Dallas' 11 most-endangered properties list released last Friday, need something to fill their empty shells at this late date. It's stunning, and not a little appalling, that even now there's no historical marker signifying where Ella B. Moore's Park Theater and the Tip Top and the Pythian Temple once stood, or no city-designated landmark status conferred upon the building on Park Avenue where Robert Johnson recorded, among other songs, "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Love in Vain" in June 1937. Then again, last I looked, the Sportatorium (you know, where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash played in the 1950s, as rock and roll was shedding its baby fat and learning how to French kiss) was nothing but a hole in the ground since 2003, the Bronco Bowl's done struck out, and the Longhorn Ballroom (once owned by Bob Wills and Jack Ruby) has been all but forgotten at the ass-end of Industrial.
But enough grousing; that's what the paper version of Unfair Park's for. Here, and for the next few days and perhaps weeks, are some reasons why Dallas music matters--and has ever since God created the six-string, the boxcar and the liquor bottle. As my good friend Michael Corcoran wrote in the preface to his recently released book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music, "No state is more musical than Texas, whose very geography seems to hum," and no city in this state is more important to that sound than Dallas--no matter what they say down in Austin or over in Lubbock or any other place where the compass needle comes to rest on the turntable. Consider this not a history or even a primer, but a compendium of the most significant, most recognizable and even just the most fun tracks to have been recorded by folks who were born here or lived here or just got stuck here on the way from anonymity to infamy. By the end of this, you should have a pretty nifty collection of songs proving why Dallas needs a music museum; feel free to pass along a copy to the mayor, if she's not still listening to her Luther Vandross best-ofs.
This will be presented, more or less, in chronological order--though don't hold me to it. For a few days we'll be in The Golden Age; then follows the Sounds of Deep Ellum; then, the Modern Era, where we find out what the day after tomorrow sounds like. --Robert Wilonsky
Blues, Booze and a Swirl of Smoke: The Golden Age of Dallas Music
Dallas String Band, "Dallas Rag": Local band signs to major label; lead singer gets own solo deal and probably ends up more famous. Good God, but that sounds familiar. Recorded in 1929, most likely, for Columbia.
Whistlin' Alex Moore, "Miss No Good Weed": Born in Freedmen's Town in 1899, died 90 years later on a city bus, all alone--if that's not mythology enough, your bar is far too high. He worked till the end, a coulda-been in the 1920s and '30s, when he recorded his ragtime'n'blues hybrid for Columbia Records, who turned always-was in the mid-1980s, when he received his National Endowment for the Arts fellowship thanks to the friendship of a white Jewboy from the north. Not his best-known song, but maybe his best--about dope, anyhow.
Leadbelly, "Fort Worth and Dallas Blues": Because he's the seed from which most everything sprung, and because the song's never been more relevant. Visionary, I think they call it.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, "Match Box Blues": Recorded in 1927, it had legs enough to land in England, at the feet of little Beatles who figured if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for the rest of the bloody world.
Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Sextet, "Seven Comes Eleven": Recorded in 1939 and released in 1940, and it was still too ahead of its time a year later. As he moved from Bonham to OKC to Dallas, the guy didn't invent the electric guitar, only the way people would play it for as long as there was electricity.
Ella Mae Morse, "Cow Cow Boogie": The first gold record for Capitol Records came in 1942 courtesy this gal from Mansfield; who knew, right? Important, absolutely, but is it any good? Sure, just not as good as her "The House of Blue Lights" in '46, which you'd swear was...rock and roll?
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Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, "Stormy Monday Blues": Name seven other songs that are better; maybe you can, maybe you can't, but it ain't easy no matter what. The first bluesman to plug in and turn on, probably. OK, definitely. Recorded in Los Angeles in 1947, probably with his eyes closed.
Lefty Frizzell, "If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time": How many songs do you know by heart that were cut on Ross Avenue in July 1950? Not a danged one. And it's got one helluva story to go along with it; in short, Dallas was this close to being Nashville.
Ronnie Dawson, "Action Packed": A good place to end it for today; nobody wanted to follow the Blond Bomber when he was alive, for God's sakes. Recorded in 1958 for Back Beat Records, when the kid was post-fetal and known as Ronnie Dee--for dynamite, for 'do, for, "Damn, that kid can sing the shit outta that song." He is still missed.
Next up: Of Snakes, Sax and Tearin' Yo' Ass