You’ve Heard About Deep Ellum’s Fabled Past. Now You Can Experience Some Of It.

Published September 28, 2023 at 5:00 AM CDT




Deep Ellum hosts restaurants and bars as well as avant-garde theater companies like the Undermain. But it’s still perhaps best known as a home for Texas blues, jazz, punk and western swing.

The new Deep Ellum Community Center on Elm Street near Good-Latimer opens Friday with three exhibitions curated by Dallas historian-filmmakerAlan Govenar. And for the opening, there’ll be singing performances by the Light Crust Doughboys and Akin Babatunde(who played the title character in Govenar’s plays, Blind Lemon Blues and Lonesome Blues).

In fact, this is a big month for both Deep Ellum and Govenar. In addition to these three shows, the third edition of his history of the area, Deep Ellum and Central Track, co-written with Jay Brakefield, has just been released, and so has his new biography of Blind Lemon Jefferson, See That My Grave is Kept Clean.

On top of all that, Govenar will have two exhibitions opening at theAfrican-American Museumin November — both of them also about Deep Ellum and Blind Lemon Jefferson. All of these are the culmination of decades of research and writing about the area, its artists and culture.

Documentary Arts

Newspaper ad for the Paramount recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “‘Lectric Chair Blues” from the Chicago Defender in the late ’20s
    Louis Paeth was so prolific as a commercial artist, a Print magazine feature on his life and work declared him simply “ubiquitous.” If you’ve seen newsprint ads and illustrations, even corporate trademarks from the ’20s through the ’60s, you’ve likely seen his work.

With Deep Ellum, Paeth’s influence came in the form of print ads for “race records,” the recording industry’s term for songs sold to a Black audience. The exhibition, “Unlikely Blues,” displays selections from his many ads for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Paramount music releases.

Texas African American Photography Archive

Drummer Herbert Cowens in Deep Ellum in 1926. Filmmaker-historian Alan Govenar chose this image for the cover of the first edition of the history of Deep Ellum he co-wrote with Jay Brakefield

Even at the time, these ads’ images of Black life and Black musicians incited pushback: The portrayal of Jefferson in his songs’ situations (“Worried Blues,” “Lectric Chair Blues”) can be condescending. But from 1926 to1930, The Chicago Defender — the nationally prominent Black newspaper — ran 44 advertisements for Jefferson’s recordings. They were practically industry standards.

    The permanent exhibition, “When You Go Down in Deep Ellum,” features a listening room and a functioning, 78 rpm recording studio. As something of a historic replica and an arts installation, it evokes the makeshift audio set-ups many early blues and country-western artists recorded in.

But the studio is only one part of the extensive, 150-year history covered in “When You Go.” It’s an exhibition built around music, migration, business and culture — with contributions from former Dallas Morning News columnist Norma Adams-Wade, folk music historian Kip Lornell (Exploring American Folk Music) and Govenar’s co-author Jay Brakefield, who’s leading walking tours of Deep Ellum every Saturday beginning Sept. 30.

    An outdoor art installation, “Invisible Deep Ellum” uses the concrete columns beneath the I-345 overpass of Central Expressway to display advertisements and pages from early 20th-century Black business directories. They’ll be bringing back – in somewhat ghostly fashion — the chunk of Deep Ellum that was leveled in 1973 for the elevated freeway.

Deep Ellum Foundation

Breony Lee, president of the Deep Ellum Community Association, and historian-filmmaker-curator Alan Govenar in the Deep Ellum Community Center with the exhibition, “When You Go Down in Deep Ellum.”


Many North Texans have heard of Deep Ellum, but few know of Central Track, which was also called Stringtown. Central Track basically linked Deep Ellum with Freedman Town, the area that — with the development of the Crescent and surrounding properties — was re-christened Uptown.

A primary reason Central Track is not well known or documented is that much of it was destroyed over the years with the construction of Central Expressway. As a replacement of the old Houston and Texas Central Railway , this started in the ’20s but really took off only in the early ’50s.

Curated by Govenar and Phillip Collins, “Central Track” features items never seen before — about the array of Black-owned businesses including street venders, movie theaters and drugstores. The curators’ hope is that the exhibition will inspire people to come forward with more items and documentation.

Photographs by Alan Govenar

Blind Lemon Jefferson was from Wortham, Texas, about an hour south of Dallas. It’s where he’s buried. In 1987, Alan Govenar had to work just to find the musician’s grave.

The subject of one of Jefferson’s most famous songs (“See That My Grave is Kept Clean”) was just a slab with a small 1967 plaque from the Texas Historical Association. Today, the graveyard is the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.

“Seeing a World Blind Lemon Saw” is a compilation of photos Govenar took over three years throughout that area of East Texas — whether the scenery remained rural or had been developed and modernized: “The sense of place that emerges through these images offers a lens on the past by visualizing the present in a manner that is at once confounding and ironic.”

  • Information on the Deep Ellum Community Center’s grand opening

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.

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