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Deep Ellum

The Other Side of Dallas

Alan B. Govenar

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

By the time we met at the funeral of blues pianist Alex Moore in 1989, Moore had finally received the recognition he deserved for his contributions to the Deep Ellum of his youth. Alan delivered a eulogy, and Jay was covering the event for the Dallas Morning News. That initial encounter led to a personal and professional relationship that has endured to the present day. ...

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pp. 1-16

Deep Ellum has been mythologized beyond recognition. Misconceptions about Deep Ellum abound, principally as a consequence of the lack of solid historical research. The WPA Dallas Guide and History, for instance, refers to Deep Ellum as the “survival of the Freedman’s Town settlement of former slaves” ...

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Chapter 1. “Deep Elem Blues”: Song of the Street

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pp. 17-29

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. ...

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Chapter 2. The Railroads Create Deep Ellum

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pp. 30-36

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. ...

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Chapter 3. William Sidney Pittman: Architect of Deep Ellum

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pp. 37-44

William Sidney Pittman was one of those who took advantage of the opportunity Dallas had to offer in the early years of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant man who became a hero to his people and something of a monster to his family. Born in 1875 to former slaves, he attended Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute ...

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Chapter 4. Black Dallas

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pp. 45-65

African Americans in Dallas advanced rapidly during Reconstruction. The 1911 Business and Professional Directory of Colored Persons in Dallas, chronicling the growth of black Dallas during the previous twenty-five years, attests to the strides made in education, religion, health care, business, and politics: ...

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Chapter 5. Jewish Pawnbrokers and Merchants of Deep Ellum

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pp. 66-78

Many of the pawnbrokers and merchants of Deep Ellum emigrated from Eastern Europe, fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. Some landed at New York’s Ellis Island and later went south and west to cities such as Dallas. Others were among the ten thousand Jews who entered through the port of Galveston, Texas, ...

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Chapter 6. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Downhome Blues

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pp. 79-105

The Model Tailors in Deep Ellum was where the black and white worlds of Dallas converged. The customers included underworld characters Benny Binion and his number two man, Harry Urban; George “Machine Gun” Kelly; and Joe Civello, a local Mafia boss. But a cross-section of upstanding Dallas men bought clothes there as well, ...

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Chapter 7. The Contemporaries of Blind Lemon

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pp. 106-118

As a result of the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson, blues guitarists from around Texas and elsewhere in the South came to Dallas in the late 1920s and early 1930s looking for work. Undoubtedly, these musicians were influenced by Jefferson, but given the transient nature of many blues singers of this generation, ...

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Chapter 8. Blind Willie Johnson and Arizona Dranes: The “Holy Blues” of Deep Ellum

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pp. 119-127

While blues singers and string bands vied for the attention of passersby on the sidewalks of Deep Ellum, street preachers and religious singers prayed to the Lord and proselytized anyone who might stop to listen. Recording scouts who came to Dallas may have looked hard for musical heirs to Blind Lemon, ...

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Chapter 9. Alex Moore: Dallas Piano Blues

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pp. 128-140

The wide success and influence of Texas blues guitar styles has tended to obscure the importance of the piano. Yet blues historian Paul Oliver has written that Dallas produced a very distinctive style of piano blues, featuring lyrics full of allusions to the city and the trains that constantly passed through it: ...

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Chapter 10. Buster Smith: Dallas Jazz Goes to Kansas City and New York

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pp. 141-157

Dallas did not play as clear or dramatic a part in the development of jazz as in blues. There is no single towering figure who was the obvious Dallas jazz counterpart to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Yet in the mid- to late 1920s, in the words of jazz historian Ross Russell, Dallas was “the most important band town in Texas.”1 ...

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Chapter 11. Marvin Montgomery: The Cross-Fertilization of White and Black Musical Styles

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pp. 158-175

While Blind Lemon Jefferson and Buster Smith are generally acknowledged as seminal figures, Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery has not been, though some books and articles written since his death in 2001 have begun to remedy this. The standard works on the history of country music have failed to recognize Montgomery’s importance as a musician ...

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Chapter 12. The Contemporaries of Marvin Montgomery: Western Swing, Texas Fiddling, and the Big “D” Jamboree

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pp. 176-191

Smokey Montgomery’s mainstay band, the Light Crust Doughboys, from its earliest incarnation as the Wills Fiddle Band, was the incubator of the music that came to be called Western swing.1 Many, notably including Wills biographer Charles R. Townsend, give Bob Wills virtually all of the credit for establishing the genre ...

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Chapter 13. Benny Binion: Gambling and the Policy Racket

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pp. 192-203

Despite periodic reform efforts, prostitution and gambling had persisted in Dallas since its days as a frontier town. In 1876 Mayor Ben Long’s attempts to enforce the law spurred the gambling-den proprietors to gather in the second story of a downtown building and defy Long and his deputies for three days and nights— ...

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Chapter 14. Deep Ellum’s Just Too Doggone Slow: Decline and Rebirth

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pp. 204-218

In January 1940 Ernestine Claunch came to Dallas with a friend from Norman, Oklahoma, to work for the Frito Company. It was the end of the Depression; she had finished school, and there were still no jobs in Oklahoma. Her brother Marion was a Frito distributor, and he recommended that she go to Dallas to be interviewed by the company’s founder and president, Elmer Doolin. ...


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pp. 219-228

Selected Discography

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pp. 229-280


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pp. 281-288


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pp. 289-307

Other titles in the John and Robin Dickson Series in Texas Music

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pp. 321-322

E-ISBN-13: 9781603449595
E-ISBN-10: 1603449590
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603449588

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Revised, Texas A&M University Press Edition

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Subject Headings

  • Popular music -- Texas -- Dallas -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Texas -- Dallas -- Music -- History and criticism.
  • Deep Ellum (Dallas, Tex.) -- History.
  • Dallas (Tex.) -- Social life and customs.
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