The blues always begins at a crossroads. Picture Robert Johnson, the guitar slinging antihero, standing at the intersection of two dust-blown lanes in the Mississippi Delta, selling his soul to the devil in exchange for angelic chops. There are the stories of itinerant musicians drifting along rivers, roads, and railways and finding their way into cities where their music takes root. The blues is so fused to the identity of some of these crossroads cities that when we hear the word “blues,” their names jump to mind: Chicago, Memphis, Clarksdale.
This month, when Eric Clapton brings his Crossroads Guitar Festival back to Dallas 15 years after he launched the event at Fair Park, we’re offered a reminder that Dallas also has its place in the story of the blues. It isn’t by mistake that Clapton, who has hosted only five iterations of his Crossroads festival, has held two of them in that blues mecca of Chicago and two in Dallas (the fifth was at Madison Square Garden). Clapton has an affinity for this city; he used to rehearse here before embarking on North American tours. The year of the first Crossroads festival, he came to Dallas on a kind of musical pilgrimage to record some of Robert Johnson’s songs at 508 Park, the old Warner Bros. studio in downtown Dallas where Johnson cut the final 13 tracks of the mere 29 recordings he made that changed the course of musical history. At the beginning of the 2004 Crossroads concert DVD, Clapton reflects on being entranced by the allure of Texas as a boy growing up in England.
And yet to most Dallasites—like many Americans—the significance of Dallas’ contribution to the development of the blues has largely been forgotten. When we think of the great American music cities, Nashville and Austin come to mind. Detroit has Motown, Kansas City had its brand of jazz, and Philadelphia has its signature soul sound. But beginning around the turn of the 20th century, Dallas was a powerhouse of American musical culture, an incubator of talent, and a significant center for recording.
Dallas was at the crossroads. After the Texas and Pacific Railroad was constructed in the 1870s and the Houston and Texas Central Railway was connected to Dallas in the same decade, the city emerged as a commercial hub, and the neighborhood adjacent to the tracks became a cultural magnet. Like Robert Johnson, few of the musicians who played in the streets and cafes of what would eventually be called Deep Ellum were born in Dallas. Many were drawn into Dallas from the Texas countryside. Alan Govenar, who has written numerous books about Deep Ellum and Texas blues, as well as several musicals about the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson, says that one of the reasons Dallas’ place in the history of the blues is overlooked is the rarity and poor quality of those earliest, pivotal recordings.
“The emphasis in Dallas of understanding the importance of Blind Lemon has gone neglected,” Govenar says. “Primarily, the fidelity of the Blind Lemon recordings have not really survived in the way Robert Johnson’s have survived. Blind Lemon, between 1925 and his untimely death in Chicago in 1929, made at least 80 different recordings. He was the biggest-selling country blues singer of his generation. He was a master stylist.”
Jefferson got his start singing at the intersection of Elm Street and Central Avenue, where crowds would gather to hear him. Those crossroads today are under I-345, the elevated highway that was built through the center of Deep Ellum in the 1970s. That erasure offers one explanation for Dallas’ forgotten sense of its own role in the history of American music—a lack of care that has eroded many of the connections between this city and its past. Another explanation is that, though the city had a vibrant community of musicians, it was a place they came to be discovered before moving on.
“Anyone who knows anything about blues—and jazz—knows it was a place where people came from, not where they made their careers,” Govenar says.
Perhaps the transient nature of the early Dallas blues scene is one reason this city’s music history hasn’t been fully registered, like Kansas City’s jazz scene is memorialized in that city’s American Jazz Museum or Memphis’ music legacy is celebrated on Beale Street and at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Dallas does not have a museum dedicated to its musical heritage, though there are a few historic plaques scattered around Deep Ellum. Govenar is working to establish a museum of street culture at 508 Park, which is owned by First Presbyterian Church, but progress has been slow. That doesn’t surprise him. His Blind Lemon musical was celebrated in productions in New York, Paris, and throughout Europe, but he has struggled to interest any of Dallas’ major theater companies in producing it locally. This year, Govenar helped compile The Blues Come to Texas, a seminal history of Texas blues that draws from decades of field research by legendary musicologist Mack McCormick and British blues historian Paul Oliver, and though the book has been lauded in press from Stockholm to San Francisco, its release has gone all but unnoticed in Dallas.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere. Maybe it would have been a trip to grow up in Memphis, but Dallas couldn’t be far behind in second.”Jimmie Vaughan
Perhaps another reason Dallas has lost touch with its musical heritage is related to the evolution of the city’s music scene through the 1950s and 1960s. When he was growing up in Oak Cliff, blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who has performed at all of Clapton’s Crossroads festivals, experienced a melting pot of musical interests and genres. Vaughan didn’t think about Dallas’ blues legacy, he says, because in Dallas it was all just music.
“My uncles played guitar and were in bands on both sides of the family,” Vaughan says. “My parents were dancers. They would go see Fats Domino and Bill Doggett, and they would also go see big bands. I didn’t know the difference between blues and stuff that they liked. There was a lot of guitars and horns and steel guitars. It was all kind of blues. I just didn’t know the difference at first. It was all mixed up.”
Vaughan tells stories about learning to play guitar from the son of a family friend in Oak Cliff with whom his father played dominoes, finding gigs at the rough and rowdy honky-tonks along Jacksboro Highway, watching the country and western musical revues on Channel 11, and hiding a transistor radio under his pillow so he could tune in to WRR at night and listen to the Kat’s Karavan show play Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed records.
“It was an exciting place to grow up if you like music,” Vaughan says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere. Maybe it would have been a trip to grow up in Memphis, but Dallas couldn’t be far behind in second.”
In the early 1970s, though, Vaughan left Dallas for Austin, where he and his brother, Stevie Ray, would eventually be discovered, sparking another chapter in the history of Texas blues. Vaughan says he went to Austin because, like any other 17-year-old, he wanted to leave home and test his chops in a new city. But he also wanted to find clubs that were looking for something other than cover bands. “If you went out to gig, clubs wanted to play whatever was popular,” he says, “and I didn’t want to do that.”
Dallas was changing in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the city distanced itself from many aspects of its past. Historical erasure became part of the process of progress. That progress also limited Dallas’ appetite for cultural risk.
Vaughan’s story is echoed in the lives of many other musicians. T-Bone Walker left Oak Cliff for Los Angeles, and his recordings went on to influence every blues guitarist who followed him. Ray Charles honed his sound in Dallas before taking it out of town and off to stardom. People meet to exchange ideas at a crossroads. But then deals are done, pacts are made, lives are changed, and it’s time to move on. Perhaps that is why the city has never put much stock in its own cultural history. Dallas has always been eager to move on.
That is why we need people like Eric Clapton. In the 1960s, Clapton and his British blues-playing cohorts were largely responsible for reintroducing America to its own musical heritage. This month, his Crossroads festival could play a similar role in reminding Dallas of its overlooked homegrown musical traditions. Virtually every significant living blues guitarist will join Clapton at the American Airlines Center. We shouldn’t see the event merely as another big concert. Rather, it is a recognition and an affirmation of Dallas’ musical legacy. Dallas should respond by showing more interest in its past and investing in new ways to unearth, interpret, and embrace it.