The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
"Deep Ellum Blues"

"Deep Ellum Blues"

#200 / April 21 Podcast

For more than a hundred years, the Deep Ellum section of Dallas has been known for music. Well, that and, in its raucous youth, uh, S-I-N…

Today that lively entertainment district also vibrates with street murals, quirky art galleries and long-time concert venues for indie performer.

But, like a family’s black sheep uncle, Deep Ellum has a sketchy, colorful resume. If you hop in your time machine and zip back to the 1920s, your walk down the streets on Deep Ellum would mean rubbing shoulders with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Huddie Ledbetter, with Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith.

You also would see pigeon droppers, reefer men, crap shooters, card sharps and various purveyors of cocaine and bootleg whisky. And then there would be the odd gangster, some (in)famous like Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd.

In his 1982 book Dallas, an Illustrated History, author Darwin Payne quoted a 1937 newspaper column describing Deep Ellum as a spot that “needs no daylight saving time, because there is no bedtime.” It went on to say this was “the only place recorded on earth where business, religion, hoodooism, gambling, and stealing go on at the same time without friction.”

The Recordings

Those words were published four years after the district was first singled out in song. In 1933, a group called The Lone Star Cowboys (actually, a pseudonym for The Shelton Brothers) recorded “Deep Elm Blues.” (Note the district’s name still has various spellings, from “Elm” to “Elem” to “Ellum”).

The recording borrowed its melody and derived its lyrics from The Georgia Crackers’ 1927 recording called “The Georgia Black Bottom.”

While no one does that tune these days, “Deep Elm (Elem/Ellum) Blues” lives on.

For instance, long before he became The Guitar God, a young Les Paul (under the pseudonym “Rhubarb Red” with his partner “Sunny Joe”) recorded it in 1936 for Decca.

Other versions were made between 1957 and 1958 by Jerry Lee Lewis for Sun Records, Bobby Jackson for Gold Air Records, Mary McCoy & the Cyclones for Jin Records and, later still, by The Grateful Dead, Levon Helm and Rory Gallagher.

In 2020, Bob Dylan's "Murder Most Foul" contains a shout-out with the line, "When you're down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe…”

See the Movie

Finally, if you haven’t seen it, by all means check out a wonderful 12-minute 1985 documentary by Alan Govenar about the Deep Ellum district in its prime. Nowadays you can view it for free online through a great film archives called Folkstreams. Click this button to watch it:

View the Film Online

A must-see/hear in the film is late Texas bluesman Bill Neely’s stories.

“It was a pretty rough place down on Deep Ellum,” Neely tells Govenar at one point. “It's where all the thugs and thieves, drunks, bums, winos, they all hung out down there. The desperados. Guys like Clyde and Bonnie, Raymond Hamilton, even Pretty Boy Floyd hung out down there sometimes.”

It’s especially cool that Neely’s playing for the camera includes an original verse or two. Our favorite (which we’ve copped for our own turn with the tune) is:

When you go down on Deep Ellum
Keep your carburetor clean
’Cause the women on Deep Ellum
Sell some dirty gasoline.

Our Take on the Tune

We always try to come up with a couple of new songs for our monthly gig at Sal’s Speakeasy in Ashland.

This is the latest, with Randy rock solid on that harmony and he, Sam and Danny just cooking on the solos.

Remember, we’re at Sal’s Italian Eatery & Speakeasy this weekend, 1624 Carter Avenue in downtown Ashland, Ky. We play from 6 to 9 this Saturday night. And best of all, the beautiful Michelle Hoge is driving in from Cincinnati just to sit in with her old band mates. It’s going to be an epic evening. Come out and party with us!

More Blues?

Finally, if all this has you in a bluesy mood, you might want to tune in The Flood’s all-you-can-east blues channel on our free Radio Floodango music streaming service.

Click here to turn us on!

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: