Who would have guessed they had tea rooms in Deep Ellum, Dallas, back in the 1930s

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Updated August 3rd 2019.

Dallas will always play a special part in the history of the blues, and not just because ‘Dallas Blues’ was the title of the world’s first-ever published blues in March 1912. Its composer was Hart Wand, a 25-year old white band leader whose German father owned a pharmaceutical factory. The song’s title was inspired by an African-American porter there, who on hearing Wand’s tune, remarked how it gave him the blues to go back to Dallas.
The sheet music to Dallas Blues was first published, not in the heart of Texas, Mississippi or Louisiana, as you might expect, but in Oklahoma City, cowboy country, South Central United States.

Hart Wand. He recorded the first known blues record.
To be reminded of home on hearing Wand’s song, his father’s porter would have been familiar with the blues emanating from the Deep Ellum district of Dallas, Deep Ellum being a local corruption of Deep Elm Street. This would have before 1909 because that was the year Hart Wand played the song to “his father’s employee” the African-American porter. Since that was also the year Wand’s father died, the general consensus is Dallas Blues was written prior to 1909, even though published in 1912. Dallas was a veritable blues factory around 1909.
The legendary Lead Belly

Aged just 16, Blind Lemon Jefferson and a 21-year-old Lead Belly are known to have played street duets in Deep Ellum, as well as busking solo. Lead Belly once said he first adapted a boogie rhythm to the guitar after first hearing boogie-woogie piano’s rolling bass in north-east Texas, around 1899. Dallas, for those unaware, lies in north-east Texas. “Boogie-woogie was known as barrelhouse in those days, Lead Belly once said.”

One of the earliest songs performed by Lead Belly relates directly to the Dallas blues district. This is the traditional African-American folk song “Have A Whiff On Me”. Here’s a link to Woody Guthries’s version.
There have been many different verses over the years, but here are a couple of original lines relating to Dallas’s Deep Ellum.
Lonnie Donegan changed title to Have A Drink On Me.
“Walked up Ellum an’ I come down Main, Tryin’ to bum a nickel jest to buy cocaine.
Ho, Ho, baby, take a whiff on me.”
This song has since covered by everyone from Woody Guthrie and The Byrds to The White Stripes and Grateful Dead. Britain’s Lonnie Donegan recorded it as “Have A Drink On Me.” Check it out below.
Another traditional black folk song from the era is “Deep Ellum Blues, referring to Dallas’s old red light district.  It wasn’t just cocaine you bought in Deep Ellum. Here are a couple of lines from Deep Ellum Blues.
Henry ‘Ragtime Texas’ Thomas.

“When you go down on Deep Ellum,
Put your money in your socks,
‘Cause them women on Deep Ellum
Sho’ will throw you on the rocks.

Oh, sweet mama, 

your daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues.
Oh, sweet mama, 

your daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues.”

It’s likely that both Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly were influenced by the music of Henry ‘Ragtime Texas’ Thomas while performing in Deep Ellum, Dallas. Born to freed slaves in 1874 in north-west Texas, Henry Thomas was well over 50 when he recorded his seminal collection of early African-American ‘reels, gospels, minstrel pieces, ragtime numbers and blues’ in Chicago between 1927 and 1929. The songs of Ragtime Texas Thomas would today probably be considered as country blues, and have since been covered by top bands like Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead and Lovin’ Spoonful.
In the 1920s, record companies from the main recording centres, like Chicago and New York, sent music scouts on field trips to places like Dallas to discover new blues talent. Obviously, their biggest coup was discovering Blind Lemon Jefferson performing on the streets of Deep Ellum. Jefferson would become the biggest-selling blues artist of them all, during the late 1920s. He would eclipse the popularity of such blues divas as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey who were also regular performers in Dallas.
This looks like an old cigarette card.
When Jefferson became famous, Lead Belly had already been banged up in jail for some 15 years, on and off, his terrible temper getting him into all sorts of trouble, including killing a cousin. Huddie Leadbetter, as he was originally known, wouldn’t be recorded until 1934 after being discovered in prison by the folk music collectors, John and Alan Lomax. Lead Belly’s sheer talent subsequently earned him a pardon.
A truly important example of blues music recorded in Dallas was a song by Texan Blind Willie Johnson in either 1927 or 1928. One of those tracks, the gospel-blues, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was chosen as one of the 27 examples of this planet’s greatest music sent deep into outer space on the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. Guitarist Ry Cooder once said that this Willie Johnson song was, “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.” Another Texan blues legend who did his apprenticeship on the streets of Deep Ellum, Dallas, was T-Bone Walker. In fact, T-Bone’s mother and step-father were members of the Dallas String Band. T-Bone made his recording debut with ‘Wichita Falls Blues’ and ‘Trinity River Blues’ in 1929. (See The Wartime Electric Blues of T-Bone Walker post in my archive of 5 June 2013.) And have a listen to ‘Wichita Falls Blues’ here:
T-Bone Walker shows Jimi Henrix how it’s done.


Other seminal blues tracks recorded in Dallas were by Robert Johnson in 1937. He had earlier recorded in San Antonio, Texas, in 1936, but in the Dallas sessions, Johnson recorded two takes of each song and it’s mainly these recordings of that have survived. These landmark 1936 and
1937 recordings were for the cut-price Vocalion label, selling at less than half the price of regular records. They would be the only recordings Robert Johnson ever made. These songs included the classic, ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’, and legendary, ‘Crossroad Blues’. While some of Johnson’s releases were moderate hits in America’s south and south west, at the time they passed virtually unnoticed, with none selling more than 5,000 copies. Robert Johnson, who was possibly murdered in August 1937 (the cause of his death is still unsubstantiated), died aged just 27. He was yet another bluesman who found success posthumously.
Wow! These old links below still work.
In the UK, get your FREE How Blues Evolved Volume One and Two previews on this link below:
In the USA, get your free previews on this link:


The two eBooks above have since been combined and expanded in the big paperback on how blues evolved, America’s Gift.