Grateful Dead's Deep Elem Blues.
Like Lead Belly's “Take a Whiff on Me,” a song we featured early on in this column, the song “Deep Elem Blues” has similarly foggy origins.
While The Shelton Brothers' 1933 take on the tune is one of the earliest known recorded versions, similar songs about an area of Georgia called Black Bottom have existed since some time in the mid-'20s.
And also like the Lead Belly tune the song about Dallas' “Deep Elm” district, this song has been performed under a long list of titles (See: “Deep Elm Blues” and “Deep Ellum Blues” for starters) by an even longer list of musicians throughout the years, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Levon Helm, Jerry Garcia, Hank Thompson and the Lightcrust Doughboys.
But what can it tell us about our city?
When the Deep Elm district first began forming in the late 1800s, it was something of an industrial district. The Continental Gin Company and one of Henry Ford's earliest automobile plants were housed there.
Partially due to its undesirable location — considered at the time to be a long ways removed from Dallas' downtown — the area became one of Dallas' earliest commercial district for African-Americans and immigrants, whose pronunciation of the area as “Ellum” eventually stuck.
By the '20s, the area became a hotbed for blues and jazz music, attracting a dozen nightclubs, domino parlors, and the like to open there.
It makes sense that a song about Deep Ellum would be as blues tune, too: Not only were legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Texas Bill Day, Lonnie Johnson, Little Hat Jones, Emma Wright, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Benny Moten all active in the area, but pianist Sam Price called Deep Ellum a “breeding ground” where musicians cut their teeth before they were good enough to move to Kansas City or New York.
Common practice in the domino parlors at the time was to hold illegal craps games in the parlors back rooms, necessitating one of the joints' employees to serve as a lookout for any cops that may pass by. This, however, was probably only one of the many illegal activities going on in Deep Ellum, as referenced by the song's line, “When you go down to Deep Elem, have a little fun / Have that ten dollars ready when the policeman comes.”
Additionally, lines not included in the Dead's version that appeared in other versions further hint at the fact that the policemen in Deep Ellum may have frequently looked the other way as far as criminal activity is concerned.
Michael Cooney's version, for instance, contains the lines, “Her papa's a policeman and her mama walks the street / Her papa met her mama when they both were on the beat.”
Around this same time, Deep Ellum became known as Dallas' red-light district due to a high concentration of sexually-oriented businesses and other illegal sexual activities that took place in the region. Aside from the above lines, several other stanzas from “Deep Elem Blues” centered around this fact as well. Lines like, “Well if you go down to Deep Elem, put your money in your shoes / Women in Deep Elem got them Deep Elem blues” and “Once I had a girlfriend, she meant the world to me / She went down to Deep Elem, now she ain't what she used to be” can be found in even the earliest incarnations of the song.
Much in the same way that the character from Jeannie C. Riley's “The Backside of Dallas” ( another song we've featured in this column ) did, the women selling their bodies in “Deep Elem Blues” didn't come off as helpless victims, but rather as a prideful, tough-as-nails, take charge group that would take every dime their Johns didn't hide in his socks.
Through all its ups and down, the seedy image of Deep Ellum has persisted.
And, even though nowadays that image is mostly unfounded, there are still plenty of people around who feel uncomfortable heading to a Deep Ellum club at night.