"Music snobs inclined to shy bricks at ragtime would probably not have ventured too close to a Dallas area off Elm Street known as Deep Ellum. The old freedmen's town had grown into a heady entertainment district alive with domino parlors, brothels, and music clubs. It was here, probably around 1912, that two sharecroppers' sons started playing music together. Blind Lemon Jefferson would have been nineteen or twenty then. He had been sightless, or mostly so, from birth. Huddie Ledbetter was a few years older. Born in Louisiana, he had been scraping around Texas for a few years, playing in saloons and dives.
"Jefferson's journey to international blues fame was smoother than Ledbetter's, but substantially briefer. The composer of the plaintive song 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' and of 'Black Snake Moan' (whose unforgettably chilling lyrics include the lines 'I ain't got no mama now' and 'Mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room') was discovered by a scout for Paramount Records and whisked off to Chicago to launch a robust recording career.
"His flexible, high-pitched voice — 'He hollered like someone was hitting him all the time,' remembered another blind bluesman, the Reverend Gary Davis — was rustically appealing to consumers of what was then called 'race music.' But he lived only a few years after leaving Texas, dropping dead of a heart attack in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm. His body was sent home to be buried in Freestone County, in a forlorn black graveyard that is now proudly known as the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery. The inscription on his tombstone reads: 'Lord, It's One Kind Favor I'll Ask of You. See that my Grave is Kept Clean.'
"Blind Lemon Jefferson was thirty-six when he died. Huddie Ledbetter made it to sixty-one. His career was slower to take off than Jefferson's, possibly because for much of his early life he was incarcerated. He went to prison in 1918 for murder, acquired the nickname Lead Belly somewhere along the way, and was pardoned after seven years by Pat Neff, who was impressed with Ledbetter's twelve-string virtuosity and confident vocals. Neff had heard him sing during several inspection visits to Texas prison farms. One of Lead Belly's compositions that favorably struck the governor was a song titled 'Governor Pat Neff,' which featured the lyrics 'If I had you Governor Neff like you got me,/ I'd wake up in the morning, I would set you free.'
"Neff did set him free, but Lead Belly was back in prison five years later on a charge of assault, this time in Angola, Louisiana. His visitors there included John Lomax, then in his mid-sixties and still tenaciously on the hunt for folk songs and work songs to record. With him was his eighteen-year-old son Alan. 'I'll never forget,' Alan told PBS's American Roots Music about Lead Belly. 'He approached us all the way from the building where he worked, with his big twelve-string guitar in his hand. He sat down in front of us and proceeded to sing everything that we could think of in this beautiful, clear, trumpet-like voice that he had, with his hand simply flying on the strings. His hands were like a whirlwind and his voice was like a great clear trumpet.'
"Aaron Thibeaux 'T-Bone' Walker eventually pushed the blues ('that ol' feelin',' in the words of Lead Belly) toward the electric horizon. He grew up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas but made his way over to Deep Ellum in time to be of service to Blind Lemon Jefferson, who needed somebody to help lead him down the crowded streets from one gig to the next, and to pass around a tin donation cup while he was singing. T-Bone Walker went on to cut his first record in Dallas — 'Wichita Falls Blues' — in the same year that his Deep Ellum mentor collapsed and died in Chicago. Jefferson was on the obese side, but Walker was lithe and irrepressibly physical, a musical acrobat who danced and did the splits and, when he electrified the blues in the 1930s, created a style legacy that led down through the generations to Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.
"Jim Rob Wills, a fiddle player whose day job was cutting hair at Hamm's Barber Shop in the Panhandle town of Turkey, moved to Fort Worth in 1929, where he found work as a blackface performer in a medicine show and started a two-man dance hall band. By then he had shortened his name to Bob Wills. Western swing, the exuberant, yipping, yodeling, fiddle and steel-guitar musical expression he was helping invent, had some blues shooting through it, but at heart it was white man's music — not untroubled by history, but not committed like the blues to the exploration of personal and ancestral pain. But it was still people's music, and the people needed it. Nineteen twenty-nine, the year that both Wills and T-Bone Walker made their first records, the year that 'Texas, Our Texas' was adopted as the state song, the year that Blind Lemon Jefferson died in the snow, was also the year when, on October 29, sixteen million shares were traded in one panic-stricken day on the New York Stock Exchange, leading to the collapse of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression."