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Texas Blues, Part 1: A New Oral History

by Jerome Weeks 14 Jan 2009 9:03 AM

First in a 2-part series. From Blind Lemon Jefferson to T-Bone Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan, North Texas can lay claim to being a distinct and integral part of the blues. Now a new history traces that long and legendary lineage.


Dallas actor-director Akin Babatunde in the play, ‘Blind Lemon Blues,’ by Alan Govenar and Babatunde

First of a two-part series on North Texas Blues

A select, mini-history of Dallas in the blues:

  • 1926 – “I walked from Dallas, I walked to Wichita Falls” — excerpt from Long Lonesome Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson from the CD, The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson:

  • 1926 – “Dallas, Texas, that’s the town I cry” — excerpt from Dallas Blues, sung by Maggie Jones from the CD, Maggie Jones Vol. 2:

  • 1962 – Goin’ to Dallas, see my pony run” – excerpt from Goin’ to Dallas by Lightin’ Hopkins from the CD, Blowin’ the Fuses:

  • 1969 – “I believe old Dallas is the meanest town I know” — excerpt from Dallas by Johnny Winter from the CD, Johnny Winter:

  • 1983 – “There’s flooding down in Texas” — excerpt from Texas Flood, title song from the CD, Texas Flood, by Stevie Ray Vaughan (born in Dallas):

  • Expanded online story:

[intro music: “Dallas Blues,” sung by Maggie Jones]

“I’ve got the Dallas blues and the Main Street heart disease.” This is “Dallas Blues” sung by Maggie Jones, the “Texas Nightingale” who was born in Hillsboro, Texas.

It’s a minor song, but it’s worth taking a look at for two reasons. First, Alan Govenar in his new book, Texas Blues, notes that “Dallas Blues” first appeared as sheet music in 1912, long before Maggie Jones recorded it.  In fact, it even appeared several months before W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” Many people still cite “Memphis Blues” as the first blues in print. It was a landmark moment because sheet music was the chief way songs were popularized then, and Handy, “the Father of the Blues,” did much to give the music a nationwide listening audience.

But  it was “Dallas Blues” that first saw print. And that small fact highlights a major point made by Govenar: Texas can lay claim to being one of the birthplaces of the blues — just like the Mississippi Delta.

It’s not a contest over who came first. It’s a question of what’s been studied, what’s gotten more attention. When Govenar came to Texas in 1974 as a graduate student in folklore, there was no single history devoted to  Texas blues.

By 1985, Govenar wrote one of the first. Since then, he’s produced three more – along with documentary films, videos, oral histories, a children’s book and a musical. His organization, Documentary Arts, is dedicated to preserving and presenting historically and culturally significant artworks.

Govenar’s new book, Texas Blues, is a comprehensive compilation of his 25 years of research. It features more than one hundred profiles of Texas artists – most often in their own words — with more than 500 photos.

GOVENAR: “I was surprised that there was so little written about Texas blues. So much of what had been written up to that time – and still today – is the Mississippi Delta sound, the Chicago blues sound. Certainly it was the music that was championed by the Rolling Stones and other British rock and rollers.”

It was the British blues-rock invasion of the ’60s that shone a huge, popular (meaning: mostly white) light on Delta blues. For his part, Govenar traces his own interest in African-American music to when he was four years old in Boston. His father brought home four records — two of which included the greatest hits of 1956 and performances by Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker

Alan Govenar. Photo: Jerome Weeks

GOVENAR: “Between those two records, black music became my first music. I listened to them over and over again. I don’t think I got another record until I was 13.”

Now, let’s go back to “Dallas Blues.” The second reason that recording is noteworthy, at least historically, is that Maggie Jones’ version came out in the mid-1920s. It was part of an explosion of blues music from Texas artists — recorded in Texas, New York or Chicago. And that explosion was triggered by a single performer — from Dallas, by way of Wortham, Texas.

GOVENAR: “The patriarch of Texas blues is Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blind Lemon was the first male blues guitar player to attain national success. His music during that period of the mid-1920s was immensely popular.”

And record executives wanted to repeat his success, which is why, for a few years, Dallas-Fort Worth became a national hub for blues music. (Not surprisingly, the famous last songs of Robert Johnson were recorded here — in a building on Park Avenue in downtown Dallas that, not surprisingly, may soon be demolished.) In the 600 pages of Texas Blues, Fort Worth and Dallas  account for 118 pages together, almost one-fifth the entire book. Dallas alone has more pages than any other city.  Even so, the book doesn’t encompass the entire land rush of recordings that Blind Lemon Jefferson set off: Document Records, based in Vienna, is trying to release all the music that was pressed then, and so far has unearthed and produced work by some 95 Texas artists — in blues and jazz and other styles.

All of those Texas-based recordings in the late ’20s included not just minor artists like Maggie Jones. They included the first record of Aaron “T-Bone” Walker — when he was still going by the name “Oak Cliff T-Bone.”

T-Bone Walker

[“I Got the Blues” from T-Bone Walker]

Walker had known Blind Lemon in the ‘20s, when he led the older musician around Deep Ellum. Later on, Walker’s pioneering use of the electric guitar would utterly change American music. That means there’s a direct link between a young man and a blind musician playing for quarters on the streets of Dallas – and the rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues you’ve got on your iPod.

As a style, Govenar says that Texas blues is lighter, more fluid, more eclectic than Delta blues. From the start, it contained bits of country, gospel, jazz, Tejano and zydeco. That’s why in his book, Govenar includes such artists as Freddie Fender and Clifton Chenier. It’s also why he sub-titled it: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound.

But in today’s hip-hop world, blues doesn’t seem ‘contemporary’ at all. Marginal is more like it.

GOVENAR: “You’re right, it’s overshadowed. But simply put, blues is embedded in American popular music. African-American music was not really played on the radio until the end of the 1940s. [But] You look at popular music today, and the most popular music is rooted in African-American sounds.”

Govenar says the blues has retained its hold all these years because it’s not just about misery. The blues was created by the first generation of African-Americans after slavery. So it is about slavery. But it’s also about freedom. The freedom, at last, to express oneself. The freedom to move on down the road.

Lightnin’ Hopkins – who was born in East Texas and met Blind Lemon when he was only eight years old – Lightnin’ Hopkins would seem to agree.

[“Good Times” by Lightnin’ Hopkins: “Good times, yeah, but it’s better down the road.”

Part 2: Dallas’ Palace of the Blues

Lightnin’ Hopkins, named by Rolling Stone one of the 100 greatest guitarists

Dallas Blues 1912 sheet music image, courtesy of Don O. Image of Lightnin’ Hopkins from geocities.com. Image of T-Bone Walker from cherrylane.com

Feature image uptop from shutterstock.com