One day in 1961, armed with a copy of Sam Charters’ book The Country Blues, future music legend Jim Dickinson* crossed the Brazos heading from Waco to Wortham on the Blackland Prairie. Traveling with fellow Baylor University students, young Dickinson sought some trace of the mythic bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose very real mortal remains lay unmarked in the cold Freestone County ground. When Dickinson and company returned in 1962, they found a cardboard marker in a tin frame and, as he noted in his 2017 posthumously published memoir, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone, a small vase containing two upside-down brooms also adorned the gravesite. “There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,” Lemon requested in one of his best-known songs, “see that my grave is kept clean.”
Legions of seekers — researchers, scholars, journalists, fans and others — make pilgrimages to Wortham, Marlin, Navasota, and other semi-lonesome spots in eastern-central Texas where masters of the country blues once sought solace in the ghostly moan that rose from the earth and echoed through their very bones. The trekkers hunt spectres of Lemon, Leadbelly, Lightnin’. They haunt streetcorners, yearning to catch lingering gospel hollers of Blind Willie Johnson, Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips. And all who have traveled these blue highways and ventured beyond the tracks have found that, no matter what they may unearth about these and other mysterious and/or marginally documented blues and gospel figures, much more remains tantalizingly unknown.
Texas-based visual artists have also fallen under the songsters’ spell, making works that channel that primitive, rootsy power and allure. Dallas artist Dan Williams became interested in Blind Willie while growing up in Waco. “Every time I went into a junk shop in Central Texas,” he told Michael Hall in a 2010 Texas Monthly article, “I’d find a worn-out copy of [Johnson’s 78 rpm record] ‘Mother’s Children.’ It seemed like everyone owned one. Seeing those records made him seem real to me.” In 1976, while attending SMU, Williams began visiting Marlin, Rosebud, Moody and other small towns “hoping to catch sight of a ‘lost world.’”
On one trip to Marlin, as Williams relates in the trailer for French musician and filmmaker Julien Bresson’s in-progress documentary on Johnson, he asked some elderly African American men if they’d heard of “a great guitar player who used to live here.” One of the men said his sister, Willie B. Harris, had been married to Johnson and took Williams to meet her. Williams learned that her singing voice appears on some of Johnson’s recordings. His 2004 print, Stella Guitars [pictured at top], produced at Flatbed Press in Austin, features portraits of several blues and gospel artists and the nom de platter under which, legend says, they recorded some side projects. Blind Willie Johnson appears as Blind Texas Marlin, and Blind Lemon Jefferson as Deacon L. J. Bates.
Bruce Lee Webb, Andy Don Emmons, Tim Kerr, and other artists contributed work to an exhibition, Art of the Blues Texas Style, held at the Freestone County Museum in Fairfield circa 2010. Kerr donated a piece about Freestone County gospel singer Washington Phillips to the museum, where it may reportedly be seen today. Most of these works capture the same kind of loose, rough voice that speaks with an essential soulfulness in the music of the blues and gospel artists. The visual artists may seem consciously outsider-ized, but they’re actually rather organically so.
The long trail of researchers functions as a puzzle-solving collective or a scattered group detective effort, correcting previous misinformation and adding new scraps of data gleaned from county courthouses, old newspapers, and elders’ memories of singers lone gone. When Sam Charters came to Texas in 1953, looking for Blind Lemon and Blind Willie after hearing their music on Harry Smith’s six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, released the previous year, he found Blind Willie’s last wife, Angeline, in Beaumont. But the alt-info in Charters’ pioneering 1959 book, The Country Blues, included, for example, the misinformation that Blind Willie had died in 1949, instead of the correct year, 1945.
The most long-haul researcher of these blues artists was probably Mack McCormick of Houston, who started even earlier than Charters. Roots music fanatics long wondered what would become of his archive of research notes, and interest only intensified after this 2014 profile and his death the following year at age 85. A partial answer to that question has now arrived in a substantial new tome from Texas A&M University Press, The Blues Come to Texas – Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s Unfinished Book – Compiled by Alan Govenar with Documentation and Essays by Alan Govenar and Kip Lornell. The 400 pages of densely packed text presents, as the title states, the unfinished collaboration of McCormick with the late British blues scholar Paul Oliver. The general arrangement seems to have been for Oliver to do most of the writing and McCormick to do most of the fieldwork. Working in the 1950s and ‘60s, of course, the Houston-based researcher had access to family members, friends and fans of musicians who were active in the 1910s, ‘20s, ‘30s and beyond.
The book touches on and expands our knowledge of just about every blues artist and scene in the state, both well-known and totally unknown. Among the latter, McCormick gathered data on one Floyd Canada, a Beeville songster who favored locals with blues repertoire “a decade before the recording of any Texas singers.” In “Central Tracks,” a chapter on the early blues hotbed of Dallas, McCormick and Oliver record not only eyewitness testimony about back-in-the-day Deep Ellum**, but they also chronicle a lively scene in the Trinity River bottoms.
The authors’ research also complicates Charters’ statement that Dallas Blues, issued by an Oklahoma City sheet music company in 1912, was the first published blues song. Perhaps most importantly, the McCormick/Oliver work greatly increases what we know about Blind Lemon Jefferson, humanizing the legendary bluesman at the same time that it underscores his near-mythic status. Many informants recalled his uncanny ability to find his way through town and countryside by perceiving the varied acoustic response as the sound generated by his vibrating guitar strings encountered trees, buildings, people, and other examples of physical mass.
While the rescued text presents an incredible amount of information, it does continue the tradition of the occasional blooper. The hard-drinking fiddler Prince Albert Hunt, for example, was shot to death in 1931 outside a Dallas dance hall by a jealous husband, not by one of his own bandmates as the authors state. And the medicine hawked in live performances by the indefatigable Waco showman Dr. N. F. Tate was called Tate-Lax, not Tate-Lay.
Veteran music writer Michael Corcoran corrected much of the historical record about the lesser-known but amazing gospel artists Arizona Dranes and Washington Phillips in unique book-and-CD packages. He discovered that Phillips, for instance, who has been described as “the height of rural originality,” did not die in an Austin mental institution — that was a cousin with the same name — and he also clarified previous misconceptions about Phillips’ one-of-a-kind, double-zither instrument, which the Freestone County gospel artist called a manzarene. Give a listen here.
Corcoran reprises his Dranes/Phillips research, along with his work on Blind Willie Johnson and Johnson’s groundbreaking slide guitar style, in the forthcoming Ghost Notes – Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music (TCU Press), with illustrations by Tim Kerr. “Researching personal history on an obscure, black, 1920s gospel musician is an often fruitless task,” he writes. “You never find that box of photos and letters you daydream about on long drives to small towns… . But early Pentecostals erased the divide between secular and sacred because in their perspective all experience was religious. They could only dance at church, so they snatched the good stuff from the devil, colored in deep devotion and had a Holy Ghost Party every Sunday and Wednesday. The ‘tongue people’ started a musical renaissance that gave birth to soul music and rock and roll.”
“Traveling through all these places in Texas,” added French musician and filmmaker Julien Bresson after his visit last month to continue work on his Blind Willie Johnson documentary, “I have seen that there is almost nothing left about him. I have also seen the ‘shift’ in several towns that used to be ‘booming’ farming centers and have changed drastically, with often a recent will to try to preserve a historical center. More importantly, I have realized the ‘physical’ divide between the white and the black America, especially in his time, which is why it’s hard to find anything. Black stories were not covered by white local newspapers. With that said, BWJ is far from being the only great that we don’t know much about, of course… . Also, I have been pleased to discover the world of black Baptist churches, which was foreign to me, and is obviously linked to the subject. I have seen that some of the songs he recorded are still sung in these churches. And the people were very welcoming and sharing.”
*Growing up in Memphis, Jim Dickinson saw Elvis when Elvis was Elvis. Dickinson played on the recordings of and/or produced the music of such artists as the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, and Ry Cooder. He played on the soundtrack of the film Paris, Texas. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying, “If you’ve got Dickinson, you don’t need anybody else.”
**If you think the Deep Ellum section of Dallas is cool today, you should read about its history. In addition to this new volume, see Deep Ellum – The Other Side of Dallas by Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield (Texas A&M University Press). A fave anecdote from the book, in addition to all the mega-cool music history that happened in Deep Ellum: in 1923 George Washington Carver demonstrated sweet potato products for an audience of 800 at the Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias, the historic Elm Street structure that is currently undergoing restoration.