Dallas String Band's “Dallas Rag.”
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 the early '20s a new movement to record the blues and jazz music made by African Americans, and due to Texas' central location within the country the state became a new recording hub. The Brunswick offices in Dallas (where Robert Johnson made his last recordings in 1937) stood as one of the first permanent studios located outside of Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago.
Other times hotel rooms and warehouses were frequently transformed into temporary recording facilities. In 1929 Ralph Peer from Victor Records recorded a number of tracks by country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers in the Jefferson Hotel. Two years earlier Rodgers' “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” became the first country song to sell 500,000 copies. Also in 1927 and 1928 Blind Willie Johnson recorded a number of sessions in Dallas as well. One of those tracks, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was later selected as one of the 27 examples of music sent deep into outer space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
During the same period, another Dallas band was creating a unique brand of music that many historians credit with helping to spawn both the blues and country genres. To say the Dallas String Band were kind of a big would be something of an understatement. At various points in their history the group counted luminaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker among their ranks.
Jefferson's early '20s recordings helped the Dallas resident to etch out a niche as one of the first successful male solo artists of all time, and the first commercially successful blues artists. His protege, T-Bone Walker (who was called “Oak Cliff” Walker at the time) dropped out of school at the age of 10 and was often seen leading his blind mentor around town to gigs. His uncle (or step father, depending on what source you believe) Marco Washington is credited with introducing the two. As the bassist for the Dallas String Band, Washington is also credited with giving Walker his start in the business. By the age of 15 Walker was himself a bona fide recording artist for Columbia Records.
Walker shocked the country in 1942 when his single “Mean Old World” which introduced electric instruments into the blues world for the first time. The guitarist was also a big influence on Jimmi Hendrix, who would go on to imitate Walker's playing the guitar with his teeth bit.
The group's primary member, though, was Coley Jones, who was considered something of a hack as a guitarist. Fortunately Jones gave up trying to play the guitar early on in favor of the mandolin. His swing-influenced style on the instrument was considered fairly unique at the time. Jones' playing also separated the band from other blues acts and minstrel shows of the time, leading some to credit the band as being one of the first ever country bands. More commonly, though, they are referred to as the first (and sometimes as the only) all black string band in the country.
Among the band's most influential and enduring songs are “Hokum Blues,” “Chasin' Rainbows,” and the instrumental track “Dallas Rag.” The latter was credited only as being authored by an unknown prison inmate, and remains popular with mandolin players to this day.
In the years since it was recorded in the late '20s, “Dallas Rag” has been covered dozens of times by artists from all walks of life. The fact that an artifact from so early on in the history of Texas' recording industry is pretty impressive as well. It makes sense though: the band's unique style and its legendary members alone helped pioneer a handful of blues and country movements and made Dallas one of the most important blues hotbeds in the country.