“Deep Ellum Blues”-The Song

“Deep Ellum Blues”-The Song

By G. S. Norwood

Cover of Deep Ellum Blues novelette
Deep Ellum Blues Cover art © 2020 by Chaz Kemp.

In my novelette, Deep Ellum Blues, rising blues guitar player Mudcat Randall performs a song called Deep Ellum Blues as one of his encores.  He dedicates it to Ms. Eddy Weekes, who embodies the spirit of this old Dallas neighborhood, at least for him. But what, exactly is the song, Deep Ellum Blues

“The song isn’t really the blues at all, but an up-tempo string band number,” according to Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield, in their book Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas. Although the string band style of music was beginning to fade from popularity in the late 1920s, this particular song was just getting started.

 It first surfaced in a form that is recognizable as the song we know today back in 1927. That’s when a group called The Georgia Crackers recorded a nearly identical song called The Georgia Black Bottom on the OKeh label

“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,” Govenar and Brakefield tell us. “The song was recorded again as ‘Deep Elem Blues’ in 1935 for Decca, by The Shelton Brothers.”

The Folklife of ‘Deep Ellum Blues’

Cover of Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas
Photo of Herbert Cowans, circa 1926, courtesy Herbert and Rubye Cowens Collection, Texas African American Photography Archive.

The Shelton Brothers claimed authorship of the song in the late 1930s, although they might have simply stolen it from an earlier traditional source. Through many subsequent performances and recordings, Deep Ellum Blues began to take on a life of its own. 

“Whatever the truth of its authorship, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ seems to have evolved in the manner of a true folk song,” Govenar and Brakefield say.  They quote McKinney-based folk musician Bill Neely as saying, “Everybody who sang it added something to it.”

Sung from the perspective of an outsider to the Deep Ellum neighborhood, it was almost always performed by white men, according to Govenar and Brakefield.

A Place of Transformation

The song comes across as both a warning and an enticement for people who don’t live in Deep Ellum, but might want to go there “just to have a little fun.” If you go there, you will be changed.

Different verses cite a variety of examples.  (These lyrics were taken from the version recorded by The Wronglers, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, on their album Heirloom Music.)

I once knew a preacher

Knew the Bible through and through.

He went down in Deep Ellum

Now his preachin’ days are through.

Wronglers cover: Photography and Design by Claude Shade, 2011.

I was tempted to quote this verse, with a suitable gender change, in my own Deep Ellum Blues, but decided it was a little too much ‘on the nose.’

I once had a sweetheart

She was all the world to me.

She went down in Deep Ellum

She ain’t what she used to be.

Sin and Corruption

Sin and corruption were part and parcel with any trip to Deep Ellum, according to the song.  The number one rule was to keep your money safe. Hide it in your shoes, your socks, your pants, the lyrics advise us. 

Why?  Because “the gals down in Deep Ellum are gonna put you on the rocks,” and then the “big policeman” will come along and demand a bribe of $15.  That would be $284.58 in 2020, according to the US Inflation Calculator.  If you didn’t pay, you would have been hauled off to jail for disorderly conduct.

Is it any wonder Nick likes to hang around down there?

Continuing Fascination

Jimmie Dale Gilmore in concert.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore in action, from his website.

The song ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ continues to fascinate musicians and listeners alike.  It’s been nearly a century since the song first surfaced.  In that time, it has been recorded by countless artists including Doc Watson, The Grateful Dead, and Levon Helm.  There’s even a cool version by a band called Blackberry Smoke, with their special guest, Billy Gibbons, from legendary Texas band ZZ Top.

Why?

Jimmie Dale Gilmore explained it simply in an interview on NPR on March 9, 2011. “This music is old, but it’s really good and really still pertinent.”

Photo credits:

Deep Ellum Blues cover, artwork © 2020 by Chaz Kemp. Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas, cover photo of Herbert Cowans, circa 1926, courtesy Herbert and Rubye Cowens Collection, Texas African American Photography Archive. Wronglers cover: Photography and Design by Claude Shade, 2011. Photo of Jimmie Dale Gilmore: taken from his website.  Couldn’t find a photographer’s credit.

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