Speaking of Texas: Deep Ellum's Enduring Spirit
By Gene Fowler
In the 1920s and ‘30s, music filled the streets, theaters, joints, and churches of Deep Ellum, an area just east of downtown Dallas that thrived as an African-American mecca of culture and commerce before construction of Central Expressway altered the neighborhood’s character after World War II. Named for the languid, southern pronunciation of Elm Street, the district was mythologized by “Deep Ellum Blues,” a 1930s folk tune about backstabbing women, backsliding preachers, and cops on the take.
That walk-on-the-wild-side atmosphere remains an aspect of the Deep Ellum allure today. Since the 1980s, the historic district has enjoyed an on-going revival as a hip enclave of live music venues, art galleries, theaters, bistros, and shops. As John Slate, archivist for the City of Dallas, puts it, “What I like most about Deep Ellum is that it resists excessive change. No amount of scrubbing or deep-pocketed investors will keep it from being a slightly sketchy part of town. Not as tender as the Tenderloin, not as skidding as Skid Row, but always lively and interesting.”
The district was mythologized by “Deep Ellum Blues,” a 1930s folk tune about backstabbing women, backsliding preachers, and cops on the take.
Itinerant musicians made their way to Dallas in the 1920s after the owner of a Deep Ellum shoe-shine parlor and record shop discovered country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson performing on the streets and got him signed to Paramount Records. Other famous musicians who performed in Deep Ellum include the blues singer and instrumentalist Lead Belly, barrelhouse blues pianist Alex Moore, and the gospel singers Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson. As a teenager in the 1920s, future guitar great T-Bone Walker performed with one of the many medicine shows that played the streets of the storied district.
Though the neighborhood remained primarily African American, with the exception of Jewish pawnbrokers—who were sometimes the only businesses willing to extend credit to black Dallasites—the music attracted a small but enthusiastic multicultural fan base. Bill Neely, a white singer in the Jimmie Rodgers style who hitchhiked to Deep Ellum while growing up in McKinney in the 1930s, remembered “all kinds of people: cowboys, Mexicans, blacks, and down-and-out farmers.”
A similarly diverse audience frequents Club Dada, Trees, Allgood Cafe, and other live music venues in Deep Ellum today. One of the most unusual venues, the Sons of Hermann Hall has occupied the same building at the corner of Elm and Exposition since 1911. Named for the German folk hero Hermann the Cherusker (he led the overthrow of the Roman Army in the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D.), the Order of the Sons is reportedly the oldest fraternal organization in the U.S.
Along with a “who’s who” of Texas artists, the Hall has presented acts ranging from the Red Elvises to Zen Bubba. Veteran Austin honky-tonker Cornell Hurd calls the Hall “an amazingly hip venue,” and recalls “magical nights” playing to a packed house of folks who know and love the country-western canon.
Music lovers know they’ve found the nightclub Double Wide when they see the spinning
“Whatever” might be the proper category for one Deep Ellum attraction—the world’s first museum devoted to the eight-track tape. Curator Bucks Burnett proclaims that he elevated the short-lived music medium to collector’s item status 20 years ago when he sold a Sex Pistols eight-track tape for $100. He opened the Eight-Track Museum in 2010 to showcase his collection of thousands of the tapes. “After visiting my museum, people see the eight-track as a valuable and historic artifact,” he ex-plains. The museum, which is open by appointment only, also displays examples of some 50 formats of recorded sound, starting with Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recordings.
Music is not the only art form that thrives in the historic neighborhood. The cutting-edge dramas presented by Undermain Theatre in its subterranean space on Main range from an original musical about Jimmie Rodgers to an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, while the 45-seat Ochre House presents original, experimental gems. The district’s many galleries display all sorts of visual creations, including challenging contemporary work by Texas artists at Barry Whistler Gallery. On Exposition Street, 500X Gallery is one of the state’s oldest co-op art spaces, and a University of Dallas-sponsored artist residency and gallery project called CentralTrak presents edgy new art in a former post office building.
Deep Ellum dining also caters to eclectic tastes. You can find chicken-fried steak and burger joints, as well as sushi, Tex-Mex, pizza stands, and barbecue—all within a few square blocks. The district’s shops continue the theme. Lula B’s Antiques, for instance, has won local readers’ choice awards for “Best Scavenger Hunt” and “Best Oldies But Goodies” for its collection of vintage jewelry, clothes, toys, odds-and-ends, and retro knickknacks.
Afoot in Deep Ellum, you’ll notice plaques that commemorate historic sites, sponsored by the Deep Ellum Association and researched and written by Alan Govenar, coauthor with Jay Brakefield of the forthcoming book Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas. Govenar says that, like its history, the revival of Deep Ellum ebbs and flows. “I’m optimistic about the potential for responsible, meaningful redevelopment and growth,” he adds, pointing out one historic structure in particular—the 1916 neo-classical Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias on Elm Street—that cries out for rescue and restoration.
Designed by black architect William Sidney Pittman, the four-story building stands empty today. Its ballroom once hosted concerts by famous gospel artists, lectures by black war heroes, and a demonstration of sweet-potato products by George Washington Carver.
Whatever the future holds for the historic district, the soulful neighborhood is unlikely to lose its essence as identified by Govenar. “Deep Ellum,” says the folklorist and historian, “is a state of mind.”
From the June 2013 issue.