Lately, one of my favorite pasttimes has been listening to “Texas Blues Radio” on KNON 89.3FM while I’m driving to take the dogs for their daily walk. Sometimes I’ll hear interesting and amusingly unpolished segments on Texas history, where I learn about guys like Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. Yesterday I learned about Robert Johnson.
They were playing a special segment dedicated to him on yesterday’s program. It was seventy-five years ago this week (June 19-20) that he recorded a number of songs in 1937 up on the third floor at 508 Park Avenue in downtown Dallas. One of the new owners of the building, who was on yesterday’s show talking about the place, mentioned that they’re planning to revitalize the property and turn it into some kind of blues museum or something. I took a drive out there today to have a look at this bit of Texas blues history.
Much of downtown Dallas is a ghost town on the weekends. The building at 508 Park Avenue is in an especially vacant part of town. It stands alone sandwiched between two dirt lots. I drive up and see a lone black guy standing out front. I park the truck and get out. The guy’s standing right next to the entrance which is gated and locked. He seems a little confused and disheveled. His stare is as vacant as the dirt lot next door. I say “hi,” hoping he doesn’t turn out to be one of those face-chewing zombies high on bath salts. He nods hello then returns to staring off into the distance. I wonder what he’s looking at? There’s nothing out here. A police squad car comes around the corner, and he shuffles across the street and down an alley. I pretend to ignore the cop and start snapping a few pictures with my iPhone.
Although my blues preferences generally lean more toward another Texas bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Mississippi native, Howlin’ Wolf, it isn’t possible to be a fan of the blues and not recognize the importance of Robert Johnson’s legacy. I can’t say I know a whole lot about the man other than the story surrounding his supposed deal with the devil at the crossroads or running from hellhounds on his trail. This mythology weaves as a thread through much of popular music over the last century or so and has made an imprint not only on blues but also on rock-and-roll and most everything that came after that. Anyway, it’s interesting to see the actual building where some of this mythology may have been created. And recorded.
A couple of workers are loading tools into trucks on the side of the building. Probably part of the crew doing renovation work on the place. One of them pulls over to the curb and motions me over. “Excuse me, sir,” he says. “Do you know what this building is?” I get the feeling that I’m not the first person he’s seen who just randomly came up and started taking pictures of the outside of the place. I tell him about Robert Johnson and how he recorded here in 1937. “Up on the third floor,” I say, as if that makes it seem any more significant.
“Ahh,” he nods blankly. He’s probably more familiar with Tejano music than Texas blues.
“Have you heard of Eric Clapton?” I ask him.
“He recorded an album here in 2004.”
“Ahh,” he nods blankly again. Then he tells me about some special event scheduled to take place this Tuesday. “But I don’t know if it’s here or over there.” He points to the soup kitchen across the street. “And it doesn’t start until after four.”
“Cool,” I say. “I might come check it out.”