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Off and on for the past six months, we've been working on a list of the top 100 songs to ever come from Houston. (The top 20 appeared in last week's paper; numbers 21 through 100 are on our Houstoned Rocks blog.)
Originally, our purpose was to do it simply because, to our knowledge, such a list had never been put together before, by anybody. And if a city ever needed such a list, it's Houston. Local popular music history, since the advent of recording technology, extends more than 80 years into the past and is scattered hither and yon across a multitude of genres, a spectrum of skin tones and the Spanish/English divide.
It became clear that this city is not a place like Nashville, an industry hub that has birthed hundreds of great country songs but little else. Nor is Houston in the same class as Austin; from the standpoint of music history and talent produced, we're actually far better. As vibrant as Austin may be today, with its festivals, industry confabs and self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" status, it offers little in the way of heritage before the rise of the 13th Floor Elevators in 1966. Austin's music history is also virtually lily-white. As Dyke and the Blazers put it in 1969, we've got more soul.
Houston is far more like Memphis than Nashville or Austin, which is to say we have one of the richest musical traditions of any city in America. Thing is, few people either inside or outside the city seem to know this.
But how many people know that Houston country singers were the first to write trucker songs and explicit songs about cheating, or that zydeco was born here, or that a teenaged piano player from Fifth Ward by the name of Hersal Thomas was credited as the creator of boogie-woogie music?
How many people know that "Rock Awhile," a jumpin' little number by a Houston guitarist by the name of Goree Carter, is credited by several sources as the very first rock and roll record? Other authorities stump for "Flying Home" and "Chicken Shack Boogie" as the first rock record — and "Flying Home" was fired by the sax prowess of Houstonians Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, while the latter was a huge hit for Houstonian Amos Milburn.
You might think a city with that kind of birthright would do something about it, and bands there would tap into that legacy from time to time. By and large, you'd be wrong on both counts.
As far as I know, there are no official monuments anywhere in Houston acknowledging that Houstonians make music. New Orleans named both a park and its airport after Louis Armstrong. A Chet Atkins Place intersects Nashville's Music Row. Memphis has Elvis Presley Boulevard and a veritable outdoor music museum on Beale Street. A statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan overlooks Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Lake. Dallas's Deep Ellum is festooned with banners and murals memorializing T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other Big D legends. Meanwhile, a statue of Lightnin' Hopkins does exist, but not in Houston, his home of 35 or so years. It's in Crockett, a sleepy East Texas town 125 miles away where Hopkins may or may not have spent the night once or twice.
Few people have done more to document Houston's musical history than Dr. Roger Wood, author of both Texas Zydeco and Down in Houston, a chronicle of Houston blues. I asked him if there were any civic memorials to any musicians here.
"The closest thing I can think of is a little bitty park in Third Ward near the SHAPE Community Center called Our Park," he says. "I am not positive that this is true, but I have heard it from several sources — the reason it has that weird name is there was once a proposal to name it after Lightnin' Hopkins. Somebody in City Hall killed the idea because Lightnin' was an ex-con, so the people turned around and said, 'Screw you, this is our park.'" (A similar proposal to rename a street after Hopkins met the same fate for the same reason, Wood adds.)
Wood thinks that Houston's sprawl is partially to blame. "Unlike Memphis or Dallas, so much of Houston's music history is decentralized," he says. "There's not a Beale Street here — things happened in Fifth Ward, Third Ward, downtown, Montrose, Fourth Ward."
Still, he believes the city's neglect of Houston's heritage is pretty lame, especially considering the people who do get honored here. "We won't name anything after Lightnin' because he was a criminal, but then we go and name our airport after Bush. At least it wasn't his son."
Then there's the matter of local bands. Few, if any, show much inclination to tap into homegrown music for inspiration, or even a cover or three.
Exceptions include the Ka-Nives and cover bands like the El Orbits and Allen Oldies Band, but most seem content to draw inspiration from their record collections and blogs. I talked to David Beebe of the El Orbits and Allen Hill, Houston's High Priest of the Oldies, about it.
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