Dallas String Band

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The music of the Dallas String Band has been called pre-blues as well as proto-blues. The group has been referred to as the only black string band in history and an early Texas country band, sometimes…
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The music of the Dallas String Band has been called pre-blues as well as proto-blues. The group has been referred to as the only black string band in history and an early Texas country band, sometimes in the same paragraph, often after being credited with erasing all color lines in American musical history. Enough lies are told about the group to resemble another great cover-up in Dallas history, the one with the grassy knoll and the book depository. Left behind as key evidence are the dozen recordings the group made for Columbia beginning in the late '20s, as well as the solo activities of three key members. The auxiliary membership of the group is where the action really is in terms of impressive history, as the names of both Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker can be dropped. Although neither of these artists show up anywhere near a Dallas String Band recording, the group's place in Texas blues history is as secure as the crown jewels. And the mighty state of Texas takes its blues history seriously, perhaps as seriously as the Brits take their royalty's sparkling goodies. Texas blues fans will be happy to brag that independent studios and labels in Dallas were busy recording blues before anyone ever heard of the Delta or Chicago. Flashing back through Dallas blues history, one runs into the Dallas String Band before the year 1927 is out. In 1929, the year Blind Lemon Jefferson died and was buried in Wortham, TX, the Dallas String Band was still cutting records in their hometown. Meanwhile, T-Bone Walker was recording his first sides under the name of Oak Cliff T-Bone. The Dallas String Band provided a link between Jefferson and Walker, considered two of the state's great blues artists from the acoustic and electric eras, respectively. The group, which was billed as Coley Jones & the Dallas String Band on at least one of the original 78s, also included Sam Harris on guitar and Marco Washington on bass. While Jones did the most extensive recordings on his own of the members, his material is also the most uneven. He began his career on guitar with a background in minstrel shows, but is considered something of a hack on this somewhat typical blues instrument. Switching to the mandolin, he kicked up quite a stir and developed a highly original style in the context of the Dallas String Band. The rarity of black blues- and swing-flavored mandolin playing is part of the attraction; other blues mandolinists include Yank Rachell, Johnny Shines, and Johnny Young. Washington and Harris had played together in the Tennessee-based band of Sonny Boy Williamson I or John Lee Williamson, and the former artist was one of the originators of a blues bass style in which the instrument was more felt than articulated. The Dallas String Band also had other rotating members and played on the streets of many North Texas towns. Like the similar East Texas Serenaders, the Dallas String Band probed outside the norm of square dance keys such as G, D, and A, playing in technically more difficult keys such as F. Recorded documentation of the group is wonderful, but apparently only hints at the group's full power. Their lineup on record of two mandolins, guitar, and bass omits the violin, clarinet, and trumpet that were reported to have been included on most of the band's live dates. By the time the group had evolved into the plain and simple Coley Jones String Band in the early '30s, Harris was out, replaced by none other than Walker -- and this was essentially the group where the axeman really got his start. But that doesn't make it the only connection between the Dallas String Band and Walker. There was a family connection with Washington as well, although exactly what seems in dispute. The bassist is sometimes identified as Walker's uncle and sometimes as his stepfather. The young Walker also used to work as a lead boy for Jefferson, sometimes leading him to Dallas String Band jam sessions where he was spotted playing from time to time. The Dallas String Band's most well-known tunes are "Dallas Rag," which is a popular number among fancy-pants guitar pickers such as Stefan Grossman, and "Hokum Blues"; indeed, the latter title represents the first use of the word "hokum" in a blues song title and as for what exactly "hokum" is, a good example can be found within the song itself in the form of this joke involving Jones. "Say Coley, can you sing?" one of the other bandmembers asks. To which Coley Jones responds, "No, I lost my voice in jail. I'm always behind a few bars and can never get a key." "Chasin' Rainbows" is yet another classic original from the band and a song that has been used as an album title by both Robert Crumb and the Double Decker String Band. Jones can be heard on one of his better solo efforts on Harry Smith's 1952 folk song collection Anthology of American Folk Music.