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Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas

Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas

by Alan B. Govenar, Jay F. Brakefield

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Deep Ellum, on the eastern edge of downtown Dallas, retains its character as an alternative to the city’s staid image with loft apartments, art galleries, nightclubs, and tattoo shops. It first sprang up as a ramshackle business district with saloons and variety theatres and evolved, during the early decades of the twentieth century, into a place where the


Deep Ellum, on the eastern edge of downtown Dallas, retains its character as an alternative to the city’s staid image with loft apartments, art galleries, nightclubs, and tattoo shops. It first sprang up as a ramshackle business district with saloons and variety theatres and evolved, during the early decades of the twentieth century, into a place where the black and white worlds of Dallas converged.

This book strips away layers of myth to illuminate the cultural milieu that spawned such seminal blues and jazz musicians as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buster Smith, and T-Bone Walker and that was also an incubator for the growth of western swing.

Expanding upon the original 1998 publication, this Texas A&M University Press edition offers new research on Deep Ellum’s vital cross-fertilization of white and black musical styles, many additional rare historical photographs, and an updated account of the area in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews

The Mexia News - Jerry Turner

"Deep Ellum is the contrast to "high-falutin" image Dallas seems to want to project as its identity. Today, Deep Ellum seems to be rebounding with residential developements, a new rail station, and reopening of new and old clubs. Deep Ellum is an excellent source of information about the area, [and] its entertainment history.." --Jerry Turner, The Mexia News
Endorsement - Kip Lornell

"Updated with new and fascinating research & enriched by a comprehensive, helpful discography, Deep Ellum Blues: The Other Side of Dallas, is the definitive study of the history and the complex inter-racial musical cultures that developed and once flourished in this now unassuming, small section of East Dallas." Kip Lornell, Music department, George Washington University and co-author (With Charles Wolfe), The Life and Legend of Leadbelly.
Choice - D.R. de Lerma

"The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, record labels, and newspaper advertisements, all of which support an engaging text. What particularly justifies this second edition are the 50 pages of disciplined discography with labels, dates, and personnel of those 78 rpm discs from Brunswick, Columbia, Victor, and Vocalion that gave sonoric documentation to the work of so many individuals from earlier days who had connections with Dallas history." --D.R. de Lerma, Lawrence University

“ . . . a welcome addition to collections supporting study of the blues and of the US Southwest.”—Choice
Texas Music

"The wealth of historical photographs throughout make the book as much a pleasure to look at as to read, even if they don't always sit next to the relevant text. Deep Ellum is a mixture of well documented, fine-grained history and engrossing detail. Govenar and Brakefield have written that rare book that will please scholars as well as music fans looking for a good read." — Texas Music
Texas Monthly - Joe Nick Patoski

“ . . . a thorough work accompanied by extensive oral history, great photographs, and a selected discography.”—Texas Monthly
The New York Times - Stephen Kinzer

“An informative book about the neighborhood’s history . . .”—New York Times
Mississippi Quarterly

“Govenar and Brakefield are to be commended for giving us a picture of a unique urban area . . . whose artistic influence and musical legacy contributed significantly to the cultural diversity of Dallas and all of north Texas.”—Mississippi Quarterly

Product Details

Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
John and Robin Dickson Series in Texas Music, sponsored by the Center for Texas
Edition description:
Revised, Texas A&M University Press Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Deep Ellum

The Other Side of Dallas

By Alan Govenar, Jay Brakefield

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-959-5


"Deep Elem Blues"

Song of the Street

The best-known song about Deep Ellum, "Deep Elem Blues," is still performed more than eighty years after it was first recorded. The lyrics may recall a past that is romanticized and distorted, but they are nonetheless evocative of a time and place where one had to be ready for anything. The Shelton Brothers sang in their 1935 recording:

When you go down in Deep Elem
To have a little fun
You better have your fifteen dollars
When that policeman comes.
Oh, sweet Mama, Daddy's got them Deep Elem blues.

Once I had a sweetheart
Who meant the world to me,
But she hung around Deep Elem
Now she ain't what she used to be.

When you go down in Deep Elem,
Keep your money in your shoes
'Cause the women on Deep Elem
Got them Deep Elem blues.
When you go down in Deep Elem,
Keep your money in your pants
'Cause the redheads in Deep Elem
Never give a man a chance.
Oh, sweet Mama, Daddy's got them Deep Elem blues
(sung twice)

Once I knew a preacher
Preached the Bible through and through
But he went down in Deep Elem
Now his preachin' days are through.

Oh, sweet Mama, Daddy's got them Deep Elem blues
(sung once)

When you go down in Deep Elem,
Keep your money in your socks
'Cause the women in Deep Elem
Will throw you on the rocks.

Oh, sweet Mama, Daddy's got them Deep Elem blues
(sung twice)

Although Deep Ellum is usually associated with African Americans and their music, this song isn't really a blues at all but an up-tempo, string-band number. Its numerous versions seem to have been recorded exclusively by white musicians, though anecdotal evidence suggests that it was performed with more of a bluesy tone by African Americans. The first recording of the song, bearing the name "Deep Elm Blues," was made in 1933 for the Victor and Bluebird labels by the Lone Star Cowboys. The band, which was called the Lone Star Rangers on some discs issued on the Regal-Zonophone and Twin labels, included Leon Chappelear, Joe Attlesey, and Bob Attlesey. The song was recorded again as "Deep Elem Blues" in 1935 for Decca by the Attleseys, who by that time were calling themselves the Shelton Brothers, and was followed by "Deep Elem No. 2" and "Deep Elm No. 3" and other variants, such as "Just Because You're in Deep Elem" and "What's the Matter with Deep Elem."

The lyrics and music to "Deep Elem Blues" were based on a 1927 OKeh recording, "The Georgia Black Bottom," by the Georgia Crackers, a group that featured Paul Cofer on fiddle, Leon Cofer on banjo, and Ben Evans on guitar. The tune is virtually identical to that of "Deep Elem Blues," and the lyrics are essentially the same:

If you go down in Black Bottom
Put your money in your shoes.
The women in Black Bottom
Got them Black Bottom Blues.
Oh, good mama, your daddy's got them black bottom blues.

If you go down in Black Bottom
Just to have a little fun,
Have your sixteen dollars ready
When that police wagon comes.

Well, I had a good little woman
And I taken her to the fair,
She would have won the premium
But she had bad hair.

Well, I went down to Black Bottom
Just to get a little booze,
And now I'm on the chain gang
Wearing them brogan shoes.

If you've got a good little woman
Better keep her by your side,
That old [band member name]
Take your baby and ride.

The Sheltons, who moved from East Texas to Dallas and became radio celebrities, claimed authorship of "Deep Elem Blues." Perhaps this was simply a case of theft, but the songs' themes are complex and revealing. "Black Bottom" referred to both a number of African American communities throughout the South and to a popular dance. The theme of both the Georgia and the Texas songs is white men going to a black neighborhood in search of illicit pleasure. In addition, the word "deep" seems to have had a widespread association with sin. Houstonians referred to "loose" women as "deep Congress floozies," a reference to the street in the old part of the city that was once notorious for prostitution, and the Western swing band Shelly Lee Alley and His Alley Cats recorded a song called "Deep Congress Avenue" in 1937.

Whatever the truth of its authorship, "Deep Elem Blues" seems to have evolved in the manner of a true folk song. "Everybody who sang it added something to it," said Bill Neely, a white songster and guitarist from McKinney, Texas, who emulated a blues style. Neely hitchhiked to Dallas in the 1930s and performed at the legendary Ma's Place on the fringe of Deep Ellum.

This song, however, was not the first to use the phrase "Deep Elm Blues." It apparently first appeared in "Deep Elm (You Tell 'Em I'm Blue)," which was recorded by several dance bands in 1925. These bands included Paul van Loan and His Orchestra; Peck Mills and His Orchestra; Herb Wiedoeft and His Cinderella Roof Orchestra; Busse's Buzzards, a unit of Paul Whiteman's orchestra that included the song's composer, Willard Robison, on piano; and The Little Ramblers. Of those who recorded the song, The Little Ramblers, a small contingent from the famous California Ramblers, was probably the best known. It featured Tommy Dorsey on trombone. The recording by the Tennessee Tooters was also issued on British labels under the name of Pete Massey's All Black Band, which, despite its name, apparently had no black members.

In 1927, "Deep Elm (You Tell 'Em I'm Blue)" was recorded by Robison, who had written the song with William R. Clay. Originally from Shelbina, Missouri, Robison was leading his own band by 1917, and his high, sweet singing voice was popular among the musicians of his day. While the 1925 recordings of "Deep Elm" had a jazz orchestration, Robison's arrangement was much simpler; he sang in a nostalgic style reminiscent of the popular songs of the period and accompanied himself on piano. Robison had a deep interest in black music and culture and led a band he called the Deep River Orchestra. But whether he—or any of the other musicians who performed the song, for that matter—ever set foot in Deep Ellum is unknown. By the time he wrote the number, Robison may have passed through Dallas by train or met performers from Texas who, like him, had traveled around the country and gone to New York looking for commercial success. Clearly, Robison's composition, in addition to referencing Deep Ellum, focuses on the loneliness of traveling and the longing for home, although its overall affect is more reflective of the popular sentimentality of Tin Pan Alley:

You've heard 'em sing about Beale Street,
Way down in Memphis, Tennesee [sic].
You've heard 'em say that Broadway
Was the only place to be.
I want to take exception
to tell you 'bout a place I've found.
Now just a street where they don't cheat
Down in Dallas town.
Deep Elm, you tell 'em I'm blue
All the time that, that I'm away from you
For I can see my "used to be"
One sweet woman who cared for me
Waiting for the news,
Just any old thing to cure Deep Elm Blues.
I've made up my mind that I'll go
Back home in Dallas, I'll never roam no more.
I've been around more than I should
I never done nothin' to do me no good, so
I'm catchin' a rattler today
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,
To keep Deep Elm Blues away.
I'm catching a rattler today
Back home in Dallas, I'm sure I'm headed that way
Now I been around more than I should
And I've never done nothin' to do me no good, so
I'm catching a rattler today,
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,
To keep Deep Elm Blues away.

The line about "a street where they don't cheat" seems ironic used in reference to a street well known for its wheeling and dealing. Whether the irony is intentional or simply the result of an easy rhyme is unknown. Unlike Robison's, the Sheltons' later record referred to the neighborhood as "Deep Elem." Why they chose this spelling over the generally accepted "Ellum" is unknown; perhaps it was a record company snafu, or perhaps they wanted to differentiate their version from others. Though there appears to be no black recording of "Deep Ellum Blues," it's known that at least one black musician performed it: Booker Pittman, a grandson of educator Booker T. Washington and son of two key figures in the history of black Dallas. Hank Wackwitz, a Dutch-born musician and jazz collector living in retirement in North Texas, recalled playing in the 1950s in a cruise-ship band that included Pittman, a saxophonist and singer. When Pittman sang "Deep Ellum Blues," said Wackwitz, the other musicians, all Europeans, "hadn't the slightest idea what he was singing about."

"Deep Elem Blues" quickly spread beyond Dallas. Trumpeter Harry James, who had grown up in Beaumont, persuaded his boss, band leader Ben Pollack, to record an instrumental called "Deep Elm" in 1936. The song and various follow-up versions such as "What's the Matter with Deep Elem" and "Just Because You're in Deep Elem" were recorded by the Sheltons and other bands. Subsequently, "Deep Elem Blues" has been performed and recorded by a number of other bands, including Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Grateful Dead, and in recent years by the Wronglers, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

In many ways, the song encapsulates a reality that has been embellished through the process of folklore and oral history. The extent to which the lyrics of "Deep Elem Blues" project an accurate portrait of the neighborhood is certainly debatable. Nonetheless, this song, probably more than anything else, has made Deep Ellum one of the best-known and least-understood sections of Dallas. "Deep Elem Blues" embodies the values of a city in transition. Certainly, within the lyrics a sense of irony and humor is associated with the foibles of those who went there. The allusions to women, preachers, and police cut across cultural boundaries and reflect a shared experience among the people of a particular time and place. "Deep Elem Blues" is a window on music and life in Dallas, from its earliest years as a city through its heyday and its ultimate demise and redevelopment.


The Railroads Create Deep Ellum

Dallas was founded in 1841 by a Tennessee lawyer, John Neely Bryan, who settled on a bluff about where the former Texas School Book Depository now stands. Then, long before the Trinity River was rechanneled for flood control, Bryan's bluff sloped down to a natural ford where travelers, first Indian, then white, often crossed. Bryan knew that the Republic of Texas had selected the spot for the junction of two major highways, one of which survives as Preston Road. Bryan's earliest plan apparently was to found a trading post and to do business with the Indians.

Thus the Trinity River played a vital role in the establishment of Dallas. But despite attempts that continued into the twentieth century, it stubbornly resisted navigation. It became obvious that if Dallas was to become a business center, another means had to be found to bring this about. That development was interrupted by the Civil War. Dallas served as a regional food distribution center, and the county's slave population swelled from around 900 to 2,500. The city was relatively untouched by the conflict. At war's end, it was a town of about 2,000 poised for growth. Its strong business leadership included men such as William Henry Gaston, a former Confederate army officer who became a banker and major landowner in Dallas. Sarah Cockrell, the widow of one of the city's founders, Alexander Cockrell, also wielded considerable power, but because of the male domination of the time, she worked quietly behind the scenes.

These leaders concluded that railroads were Dallas's route to commercial success. In this, of course, they had considerable competition; railroad fever was sweeping the nation. But they had an uncommon determination and were not above a bit of trickery—some would say ruthlessness.

After the war, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad (H&TC) resumed its northward progress. Its projected route would have brought the line eight miles east of Dallas County's courthouse, too far away to do the city much good. Here, Gaston's land holdings saved the day. His home was more than a mile east of the courthouse square—then considered so far from city life that he once attempted to recruit neighbors by offering land free to anyone who would build on it. Gaston offered the railroad right of way, and he and the other businessmen sweetened the pot with $5,000 in cash. The railroad accepted the offer. In anticipation of the laying of the track and construction of a station, the city cleared the wooded area and extended the major east-west streets: Elm, Main, and Commerce. News of the railroads' coming triggered a boom. "Dallas is improving rapidly," lawyer John Milton McCoy, later Dallas's first city attorney, wrote to his brother in Indiana in December 1871. "The prospects are very flattering indeed. Everything points to the crossing of two great roads here. Property is at exorbitant prices. The people are crazy, talking about Dallas being the Indianapolis of Texas for a railroad center. Emigration pouring in and everybody talking about the town."

The first train steamed into town on July 16, 1872, and Dallas went crazy. As Robert Seay, a young lawyer recently arrived from Tennessee, wrote: "Men whooped, women screamed, or even sobbed, and children yelped in fright and amazement. As to that, there were some grown folks there who had never seen a railway train before, and I think the chugging of the log-burning furnace and the hissing of the steam startled them, a little." An estimated five thousand to ten thousand people turned out to hear hours of self-congratulatory speeches by city leaders and railroad officials and to feast on free buffalo steaks.

The civic leaders also turned their sights on the Texas & Pacific Railroad (T&P), which had been chartered by Congress in 1871 to extend its line to San Diego. The railroad planned the line along the 32nd Parallel, fifty miles south of Dallas. But a local legislator attached to the right-of-way bill a seemingly innocuous rider requiring the T&P to cross the H&TC within a mile of Browder Springs. It did not mention, of course, that Browder Springs, south of town, was Dallas's water supply. When railroad officials learned this, they threatened to run the line south of the springs, so it would still miss Dallas. But Gaston kicked in 142 acres for the right of way plus the 10 acres for the station. The city came up with $200,000 in bonds and $5,000 in cash and offered to let the railroad run on Burleson Street, which would be renamed Pacific Avenue. The T&P reached Dallas in February 1873, just in time for a panic, or depression, which halted its growth for several years at the community of Eagle Ford, about six miles west of town.

A resident named Wood Ramsey wrote that, when he came to Dallas in 1875, "The Union Depot building was a squatty, one-story structure. The farmers, cowboys, loafers and loungers who crowded the platform and opened a way for us to get from the train as it pulled up with a clanging bell, broke up into squads and leisurely gravitated back to the domino tables in the adjacent saloons from which the whistle of the locomotive had jerked them."

Within a year of the H&TC's arrival, between 750 and 900 new buildings were erected in the city, including a $75,000 courthouse. Dallas was virtually starting over; the wooden buildings downtown had been destroyed in 1860 by a fire that was blamed (falsely, many believe) on a slave revolt. In fact, three slaves were hanged, and all the other slaves in the county were ordered whipped. The post-railroad boom brought the terminus merchants, so-called because they had followed the H&TC north, where they set up stores in the railhead towns: Millican, Bryan, Hearne, Calvert, Kosse, Bremond, Groesbeck, and Corsicana. Because they had last stopped in Corsicana, many were called the "Corsicana crowd" once they reached Dallas.


Excerpted from Deep Ellum by Alan Govenar, Jay Brakefield. Copyright © 2013 Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ALAN GOVENAR is an author, folklorist, photographer, and filmmaker, living in Dallas. His recent titles include Everyday Music, Jasper, Texas: The Community Photographs of Alonzo Jordan, Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues, and Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound. JAY BRAKEFIELD is a career journalist, freelance writer, and editor. He lives in Bryan, Texas.

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