May 8, 2011, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of bluesman Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson -- one of two known photographs of the Delta blues legend
In a fitting tribute to Johnson and an important coming-of-age coming-to-senses moment, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas announced plans to save the old Brunswick Records Building at 508 Park Avenue, a site where Johnson recorded songs in 1937 that changed the blues, changed recording, and left us a legacy of Johnson to study from his short life.
(On at least one day of those 1937 recordings, Johnson could have brushed shoulders with the Light Crust Doughboys, the Texas Swing legends, who were recording in the same building. The Doughboys set their own pace and gave birth to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Two of Texas’s greatest music legends, in the same building on the same day, both just stepping on the platform of the train to immortality.)
Saving 508 Park Avenue vexed Dallas for a couple of decades. First, blues is not the music of Dallas cognescenti, though the world class musicians in town including Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Jaap van Zweden tend to support the eclectic music scence and honoring musicians of all genres (and Texas is loaded with different music genres). Second, while Park Avenue may have been a bustling business district adjunct once, Dallas’s city center suffered 50 years of decline after school desegregation. Parts of downtown and Uptown begin to look prosperous again, but the southern peninsula of the city, away from the now-packed-with-performance venues Arts District, a freeway and ten blocks away from Uptown, with its back up against another freeway, part of Interstate 30 and the famous Dallas Mixmaster.
508 Park Avenue, Dallas, Robert Johnson's early recording site, photo by Justin Terveen for the Dallas Observer
Plus, the building is directly across the street from the Stewpot, a kitchen operated by First Presbyterian Church to serve Dallas large and unfortunately thriving homeless population.
Who wants to renovate an abandoned building that has homeless people as scenery for the better part of the day?
Big news this week: 508 Park Avenue was sold to First Presbyterian, who have plans to save the building (and recording studio!), add a performance amphitheatre at one end of the block, and a park at the other. This is people-friendly development well ahead of its time — there is not a resident population in that part of the city to support such a venue — yet.
Last summer, it was the neighbors, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, who made an offer to buy 508 Park Avenue and the adjacent building and empty lot. But the deal was contingent on the city allowing the church, which also operates the Stewpot, to tear down an unrelated building next door, at 1900 Young, and replace it with an outdoor amphitheater for church socials and concerts. The Landmark Commission went into last Monday’s meeting with angels on one shoulder and devils on the other: The commission’s task force suggested approval; city staff, denial. The latter would have sent 508 Park Avenue back into purgatory.
But Landmark OK’d the plan, and the church says it will restore 508 Park Avenue to its former glory, inside and out—including the construction of a real recording studio where Johnson once sat and played “Hell Hound on My Trail.”
The church promises: It has musicians lined up to participate, but it can’t yet reveal who. The church promises: 508 Park Avenue will be resurrected.
One hell of a birthday gift for a man who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.
The second authenticated photo of blues legend Robert Johnson
So, on Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday (assuming he wasn’t really born in 1912 . . . another mystery for another time, perhaps), the news is that the legendary bluesman who burned out like a shooting star helped save one of the few examples of art deco building decoration in Dallas, when a group of Christians who help the homeless, decided to step in an update their downtown Dallas campus.
Every step of the way, it’s an unlikely story. Truth is, in this case, much, much stranger than fiction.
Ovation Music released to YouTube the video of Eric Clapton playing and singing “Me and the Devil,” at 508 Park Avenue, in the same room where Robert Johnson sang for a record early on. Johnson recorded the song at that same location on Sunday, June 20, 1937.
508 Park Avenue, Dallas, is already a memorial to Robert Johnson, to the blues, and to the city where these early blues hits were made. The struggle remains to make the memorial accessible, and not threatened with destruction.
- Story on the then-proposed restoration of the building, at The Delta Blues blog, last January
- Dallas Observer’s “Unfair Park” column from January 2009, on the plans to tear down the building; features a Google panorama view of the building from Park Avenue, in front of the building
- Dallas Morning News, May 2, 2011, “Plan aims to preserve endangered downtown building with rich music history” (Subscription may be required to see this)
- November 2008 story in Vanity Fair about what may be a third photograph of Robert Johnson, and the work of trying to put his history together
- A long post that purports to carry the facts about Robert Johnson, and certainly tells the stories (but some of the facts may be more legendary than fact); a useful background on Johnson’s life at Riverside Blues Society
- Oh, my, more mystery: In which of these three graves does Robert Johnson really lie? Is he buried at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Morgan City, Little Zion Baptist Church in Greenwood, or Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church in Quito, all in Mississippi?
- Very good NPR story, “Robert Johnson at 100, Still Dispelling Myths;” listen to the story here