July 30, 2020


The Proving Grounds: Charley Crockett and the Story of Deep Ellum: Generations of musicians got their start busking the streets of the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. After a decade of 'hobo-ing' around cities like New Orleans, Paris, and New York, Charley Crockett discovered it was his turn. (Jonny Auping, July 2020,  Longreads)

In 1912 two musicians were playing near the Union Depot on the corner of Elm Street and Central Track in a pocket of Dallas, Texas where, if you believed what the local papers wrote, you'd be wise to keep your money in your shoe. One was 24, likely playing his signature 12-string guitar. The other was 18 or 19 and blind with an acoustic guitar strapped across his imposing frame.

People passed by, some dropping change they could afford to part with. To hear the older one tell it, their music sent women running over to give them hugs and kisses. From there, they'd head a few blocks down Elm Street or Commerce, talking about women, music, and survival, the 24-year-old with the 12-string leading the blind man. They'd stop outside of local businesses, most likely pawn shops, and play. The older one would learn plenty about the blues from the blind one. Their little pocket in the middle of Dallas is known as Deep Ellum. You could walk the whole area in 15 minutes.

Around 1915 the two would part ways and never see each other again. The older one left Dallas with his 12-string. In 1918 he went to prison for murder. He spent the next 20 years in and out of incarceration and was dead by 1949. His name was Huddie Ledbetter, but he went by Lead Belly. The blind man would purportedly die in a Chicago blizzard in 1929. People called him Blind Lemon Jefferson.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Bob Dylan credits Lead Belly's records with getting him into folk music. George Harrison stated that without Lead Belly there would be "no Beatles." Kurt Cobain would make similar sentiments about Nirvana. In his autobiography, Blues All Around Me, B.B. King wrote that he "flat-out tried to copy" Blind Lemon Jefferson. That line of influence traces directly through Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones.

Almost exactly 100 years later, a modern songster named Charley Crockett would stand at about that same spot playing for people's change, though the Union Depot had been gone for over 70 years. Anyone with an ear for musical history would hear Crockett's stories-disguised-as-songs and his blues style as an homage to men like Jefferson and Lead Belly and to a long-ago era of music, but Crockett wasn't standing in that spot for its history. He was there for a particular kind of foot traffic; the kind where feet were attached to bodies that found street music endearing. By that point in 2014, he had survived for nearly a decade as a musician living on the streets. He's said to be a distant relative to Davy Crockett, and he's covered more of the United States, hitch-hiking and hopping trains, than the Texas legend ever did.

Almost exactly 100 years later, a modern songster named Charley Crockett would stand at about that same spot playing for people's change, though the Union Depot had been gone for over 70 years.
While the journey reflected in his songs has since garnered him national acclaim and landed his music on both the Blues and Americana charts, Crockett is barely a chapter in the story of Deep Ellum. Then again, the stories of Deep Ellum tend to be written in disappearing ink. You won't find plaques commemorating Blind Lemon Jefferson or Lead Belly's time there, though it's more responsible for Texas Blues than any one place could claim. It was a haven for punks and counterculture in the '80s and breakout stars in the '90s. A "Deep Ellum act" can mean anyone from T-Bone Walker to the Old 97's to Erykah Badu to St. Vincent to Leon Bridges.

For over a century, Deep Ellum has been a spot where Dallas has put either the people it didn't want or didn't know what to do with. Crockett fit right in. There's no way to quantify how different modern music might sound if Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson never spent that time together. But Crockett's journey to Deep Ellum is as good a start as any to try to explain how music has managed to keep returning to this neighborhood whose own city has never fully understood. [...]

The city of San Benito, where Charley Crockett was born in the 1980s, is in Texas, but it was worlds apart from Deep Ellum. Also the birthplace of Tejano music legend Freddy Fender, it's about 20 minutes from the Mexican border and eight hours from Dallas. Soon after his birth, Crockett and his mother moved 11 miles east to Los Fresnos, a city with less than 6,000 residents, more than 90 percent of them Latino. Crockett's arrival coincided with his father's departure. "He was living a rough life," Crockett said of the man whose last name he claims. "He was pouring concrete and working on shrimp boats and ending up in ditches on the side of farm roads instead of making it home. He wasn't around."

Crockett, his mother, and eventually his grandmother shared a small trailer parked on Old Port Road with nothing to see but the oranges, grapefruit, and sugar cane growing around them. Most of his memories of his time in South Texas fall under two categories: poverty or music. Tejano singers like Freddy Fender and Johnny Canales would perform nearby, and Crockett's mother would encourage singing while doing chores or just to pass the time. "Music was really kind of everywhere in that rural area," Crockett said. "I think it was just part of the culture."

Looking for more opportunities, Crockett and his mother moved north to Irving, just outside Dallas, when he was 9. His mother worked non-stop in those days, but their lives didn't seem to be improving as Crockett grew old enough to understand their struggle. Sometimes a "city of opportunity" only paints a clearer picture of one's poverty by contrasting it with the expensive shops and generational wealth that's flaunted in Dallas. In the summers Crockett would go to New Orleans to live with his uncle, who worked in a restaurant in the French Quarter. Before Katrina there was still a heavy street culture in the city. Bands played everywhere. Crockett arrived in New Orleans for the first time as a 10-year-old who had spent much of his childhood in isolation. Suddenly he was immersed in a city of diversity, music, and mischief, playing cards for his uncle in bingo halls. The food, jobs, and agriculture weren't unlike Los Fresnos. New Orleans had the soul of the Gulf Coast he was born into but injected with vibrancy.

Back near Dallas, his mother lost her job while Crockett was still in high school, but still managed to buy him a guitar from a pawn shop. By the time he was 18, he was completely purposeless. He took that guitar and just started "hobo-ing" around Texas. He'd squat with people he'd meet without a thought or plan for the next day, let alone the next week. "I really felt limited by what I thought my future had to offer me," he said. He was learning how to steal to survive, "and just kind of becoming a delinquent, getting into trouble, doing stuff I shouldn't be doing."

One day, he was sitting on a park bench near a baseball field in the town of Farmers Branch when a woman walked by and threw him 50 cents. In those days, music wasn't an ambition as much as an introduction to other musicians he could pass the days with. Jamming with street musicians in Carrollton, Crockett met a man who was planning to drive to Northern California the following day. Crockett begged the man to let him join. He knew nothing about the area and had no real reason to want to be there. "I just wanted so badly to get out of my situation," he said.

So, Crockett rode along on the ride west, but as they neared their destination, the driver decided he had no intention of bringing a new friend to his town, so he stopped in Vallejo, California and let Crockett out in a parking lot with nothing but a guitar.

Posted by at July 30, 2020 7:07 AM