Take A Whiff On Me by Lead Belly.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas. And they say a lot about who we are. So, each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours.
Before there were record labels and contracts — or basically any of the “business” part of the music business — songs were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. Although there is a level of purity and genuineness that this time can be looked back upon with, the lack of an accurate paper trail makes it difficult to determine the origins of some of the earliest blues and folk songs written in our country.
As clouded as this era in popular music history is, it would be exponentially more so without the work of recording pioneer, musicologist and folklorist John Lomax (and later his son Alan) who traveled the country, making tens of thousands of field recordings of poor turn-of-the-century musicians.
For instance, the song “Cocaine Blues,” perhaps most famously sung by Johnny Cash on his At Folsom Prison album in 1968, was written by “Red” Arnall sometime around 1947 according to historians' best estimates. Arnall's version, however, borrowed several elements from Lead Belly's “Take a Whiff On Me,” which was first published by Lomax in 1934.
Although Lomax has gone on the record stating that the song's origins are unknown, it is generally thought that many of the songs lyrics were an appropriation of the song “Take a Drink On Me,” which can be traced back as far as the late 1920s. Several other songs written in this era, including “Cocaine,” “Coney Isle,” “Cocaine Habit Blues” and “Tell It To Me,” all of which share similar lyrical content and themes, making the search for these songs' true source next to impossible.
What's not in doubt, however, is the fact that the version “Take a Whiff On Me” is undeniably about Dallas. In the version of the song offered up by Lead Belly, who is most associated with originating this incarnation of the tune, the narrator walks up Elm Street and then down Main Street on his quest for cocaine. His allusion to the seedy red light district in which he walked, it's clear, is one of the first popular songs to use the phrase Ellum in reference to Elm Street. It was around this same time that the neighborhood, which was until then known more for being the city's first commercial districts for African American and European immigrants, first started morphing into a rich entertainment district. By the time musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, Texas Bill Day and Bessie Smith made the region a hotbed for blues and jazz, the neighborhood became home to over 20 nightclubs, domino parlors, tea rooms, walk-up hotels and tattoo shops. Oh, and plenty of drugs.
Around this same time, a reporter for a black paper famously wrote of Deep Ellum, “[It's] the one spot in the city that needs no daylight savings time because there is no bedtime, and working hours have no limits. The only place recorded on earth where business, religion, hoodooism and gambling and stealing go on without friction.” Though the neighborhood — and the city as a whole for that matter — has changed drastically throughout the years, the “cocaine and boob job” stereotype is one Dallas still hasn't managed to live down to this date.