The Mountain Goats' Blues In Dallas.
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. Check out this feature's archives here.
In early 2002, The Mountain Goats released their lo-fi masterwork, All Hail West Texas. The disc would later prove to be the last of the band's trademark lo-fi albums recorded entirely on frontman John Darnielle's Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, and the album, consisting of “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys,” is pretty much what its name and description imply. And, included on the album, you'll find not only North Texas favorite “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” but a lesser-known work about our city as well. The sad, waiting ballad “Blues In Dallas” evokes memories back to some of Dallas' darkest times — especially in the third stanza, during which Darnielle laments the tourists milling about in Dealey Plaza.
Built in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project, the little area of land that leads to the Elm, Main and Commerce Streets' merging under the Triple Underpass was named after an early Dallas Morning News publisher. But it didn't really enter the nation's conscious until that fateful day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Elm Street as his motorcade passed through.
The same lack of early public consciousness goes for the plaza's now infamous “grassy knoll,” too. Before Kennedy's assassination. no one called it the “grassy knoll.” No one really called it anything.
The first person to inadvertently coin the term was reporter Albert Merriman Smith of United Press International, who used the term to describe the area that some authorities allegedly rushed to after possibly hearing shots fired from that direction. Of course, the term — which has since become a slang term for conspiracy-related cover up activity — didn't become permanently ingrained into public lexicon until it was repeated on national television by famed newsman Walter Cronkite in his second bulletin on the assassination for CBS News.
While definitive proof of a second gunman located on the grassy knoll on November 22, 1963, may never surface, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Oak Cliff resident Lee Harvey Oswald did, in fact, fire shots from a sixth-floor window of The Texas School Book Depository on that fateful day.
Of course, years later, on February 20, 1989, that building would change which its identity and become home to The Sixth Floor Museum. But the museum's 325,000 annual visitors (or roughly six million visitors from 133 countries since it first opened) are only some of the tourists Darnielle would have seen milling about while visiting the plaza.
Depending on whose numbers you believe, Dealey Plaza itself attracts between one and 2.2 million visitors each year.
Beyond tourists, the plaza has also attracted filmmakers like Oliver Stone who, after months of negotiations with the city, was allowed to film scenes for his 1991 film JFK there. According to his biographer James Riordan, Stone paid the city a considerable amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic as he closed streets for three weeks of filming.
Stone also reportedly paid $50,000 for permission to film from Oswald's perch in the Texas School Book Depository, and was only allowed to film during limited hours, with only five crew members (himself, one actor, and a three-person camera crew) in tow.
Riordan also wrote in his Stone bio that the director spent an additional $4 million to restore Dealey Plaza to 1963 conditions.
While Riordan and Stone have both always claimed that the director has been the only person ever allowed to commercially film a reenactment of the assassination in Dealey Plaza, that isn't exactly true. A 1976 made-for-TV movie called
More recently, neo-soul songstress Erykah Badu filmed her own commercial reenactment, of sorts, in Dealey Plaza. In 2010, the singer stripped nude near the grassy knoll and laid down on the sidewalk near where Kennedy was assassinated while filming her “Window Seat” video. Of course, unlike Stone, Badu shot the video guerilla-style, sans permission. And, ultimately, the $500 disorderly conduct fine she ended up paying the city was well worth the bump (pun very much intended) in national exposure the act earned her.
According to Badu, her video was intended to open a dialogue on the psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink,” in which members of a group isolate themselves from outside opinions in an effort to achieve harmony and/or a consensus, only to eventually come up with deviant ideas. Given that Kennedy's succumbing to groupthink in the Bay of Pigs Invasion (and avoidance thereof in the following Cuban Missile Crisis) was used in early case studies by pioneering groupthink research psychologist Irving Janis, the grassy knoll proved to be quite a fitting filming location for Badu's video.
While initial public reaction to Badu's video was predominantly one of shock and outrage, neither of those sentiments stuck with Badu for long.
Similarly, the city of Dallas was the source of the nation's scorn for years following the assassination, as Dallas earned nicknames like the “City of Hate” and the “City That Killed Kennedy.”
Over the years, that national sentiment has cooled tremendously. But, as Darnielle sings in “Blues in Dallas,” he has still “not learned to forgive.” It's no wonder he found so repugnant those tourists dodging oncoming Elm Street traffic to take photos of themselves on the X that marks the spot where bullets struck the president.
He's got a point, really.