Tuesday, June 9, 2009

508 Park, Robert Johnson, and the Blues

When you work in an inner city nonprofit, then you get a chance to see a lot of things that most people don’t. Today I got to see the building at 508 Park in Downtown Dallas where in 1937 the blues artist Robert Johnson made his second, and last, recording. Built in 1929, the building’s owner is now considering demolition.

The largest problem with the property is its location directly across the street from First Presbyterian Church of Dallas’s outreach to the homeless, the Stewpot. Since 1975 the Stewpot has been offering a wide array of services to the homeless, You can upload the impressive list of services here: http://thestewpot.org/pdf/stewpotservices.pdf.

Central Dallas CDC also works with the homeless, so I have great respect and admiration for the work done by the Stewpot. I also have sympathy for the property owner. Any place where large numbers of homeless people congregate is going to be affected adversely—that’s one reason why we’re working so hard to create housing for people who are now homeless. It’s good for them; it’s good for the City of Dallas; it’s good for all of us both body and soul.

Still it would be a crying shame to see the place where Robert Johnson recorded classic blues tunes like “Love in Vain”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Me and the Devil Blues” torn down. Robert Johnson’s music was rediscovered in the 1960s and was seminal to the growth of rock ‘n roll, among other musical genres. His “Crossroads Blues” is one of the best known of all blues tunes, and helped give rise to the legend that he sold his soul to the devil in return for his talent.

Robert Johnson’s legend has gone beyond music and appears all over American popular culture. The character “Tommy Johnson” in the Coen brother’s movie O, Brother Where Art Thou? was based on Robert Johnson and the American Indian writer Sherman Alexie wrote the novel Reservation Blues where Robert Johnson’s legacy figures prominently.

Eric Clapton has recorded not one, but two, CDs devoted entirely to the works of Robert Johnson, Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J. Parts of the latter CD were actually recorded by Clapton on the third floor of 508 Park on June 3, 2004, including “Terraplane Blues”, “From Four Until Late”, “Love in Vain”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Me and the Devil Blues”—all of which were recorded by Robert Johnson in the same location sixty-seven years earlier.

So I visited the site this morning in the company of local associate architect and trustee for the Dallas Historical Society, Dan Finnell, who took the pictures of the property that appear here. It isn’t within the normal scope of work for me, but somebody needs to try to save this piece of Dallas history, and, no matter how long a shot it may be, Dan and I are going to make an effort to find a way to preserve this piece of history. Dan has already been in touch with Robert Johnson’s grandson, who runs the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation (http://www.robertjohnsonbluesfoundation.org/index.html) and the family would very much like to see this site saved.

If you want to help, or have an idea how it could be done—or better yet are already working on saving 508 Park and we can help you—please let us know. Losing this building would destroy an important piece of Dallas’s, and music’s, history.


  1. Thanks for putting in work on this... It would be a massive tragedy to see this building go. Because I'm only in Dallas part-time, and don't have any financial resources to speak of, the help I can give is limited, but keep people posted on what we can do, because I'd be happy to donate what little money I could to a great cause like this, or to donate time and physical labor if I happened to be in town when it was needed.