Though it’s blurrier than it used to be, the party line on Houston holds that this city is either contemptuous of its past or simply too focused on the future and/or present to spend much time looking backwards. And even on the rare occasion that history prevails, it’s often for purely mundane reasons; witness Harris County’s decision earlier this week to (finally) give the Astrodome a makeover — but to convert it into a structure that will mostly hold more parking spaces for Texans games and the rodeo, as opposed to the more imaginative ideas that were on the table.
However, speaking up for those who believe history matters — and, believe it or not, can even be enjoyable for the general public — are the volunteers of the Houston History Alliance, a network of area nonprofit organizations that grew out of a task force commissioned by then-Mayor Bill White. As current HAA Co-Chair Cecilia Ottenweiler explains, “[Mayor White] scratched his head one day in 2005 and couldn’t figure out why Houstonians didn’t know Houston’s history.” Every year HAA organizes a conference around a specific theme, such as last year's “Houston In the 1860s.”
“It was a really great conference; we had a great time,” Ottenweiler says. “This time, we wanted to shift the way we were doing things and find a topic that would be less academic and more engaging for the entire community.”
It’s tough to imagine a more engaging way to experience Houston’s history than “The History of Houston’s Musical Soul,” the HAA’s all-day conference Saturday at the MATCH that brings together musicians, journalists, academics and others to discuss, debate, and mostly celebrate the Bayou City’s musical history across a variety of genres. Sample titles of the more than half-dozen panels include: “Texas Tenors to Oilin’ Up: the Soul of Houston Jazz”; “Playing Both Sides of the Tracks: Houston R&B and Honky-Tonk In the Mid-20th Century,” featuring a performance by “Whiskey River” author/Houston native Johnny Bush; “The Evolution of Latino Music In Houston”; and “From Rhythm and Blues to Chopped and Screwed...And Folk Music Too!: Popular Music Collections in UH and Rice Libraries.”
Orbiting the conference will be a Friday-night screening of the documentary Texas Zydeco at Fifth Ward’s recently reopened Deluxe Theater (3303 Lyons), with an after-party featuring zydeco-dancing lessons and music by Fred Rusk and The Zydeco Hi-Steppers; catered lunch at the MATCH by Triple J Barbecue (included in the $65 ticket price); a “Houston Through the Decades” pop-up museum; DJ sets by conference panelists at Natachee’s and the Big Top Lounge; a free show by H-Town blues great Trudy Lynn Saturday night at the Continental Club; and a Sunday-matinee benefit for the Houston Blues Museum featuring chart-topping Latina saxophonist Evelyn Rubio, also at the Continental.
“Metaphorically, this is not a plate of broccoli,” says Ottenweiler. “We have come up with absolutely juicy hamburger that’s going to drip down to your elbows. There’s going to be a lot of talking, but the whole idea was to just live this topic. Experience it. Talk to the people who lived it. Hear it, taste it. I just really want to get the community feeling like they’re welcome.”
Dr. Roger Wood, author of three books on Houston music (including the basis of the Texas Zydeco documentary), will join director Ruben Duran for a post-screening Q&A Friday night and appear on Saturday’s “Both Sides of the Tracks” panel. He says he’d like to see the discussions challenge some of the audience’s assumptions about Houston music.
“Houston isn't thought of by many as a jazz center, but it has certainly been a large and fertile breeding ground — from the 1940s right up to today with guys such as Robert Glasper and Jason Moran,” Wood says. “Zydeco, as we know it today (as opposed to its predecessor, the Creole folk music known as la-la), came into being and flourished here in the mid-20th century. And there's a large and pretty much self-contained zydeco scene here even today, arguably the best on the planet.
“The presentation on the rare music history holdings in the Special Collection archives of the University of Houston Library will probably surprise some folks too,” he adds.
The various genres that will be discussed at the conference — jazz, blues, folk, country, rock and roll, R&B, hip-hop, zydeco, and Latino music — represent a large majority of ingredients for American popular music over the past century or so. The way Ottenweiler sees it, not only have the socioeconomic conditions in Houston been ripe for all of those genres to flourish at one point or another, but the way the city’s various communities have interacted with one another (if sometimes reluctantly) has influenced the music they made, whatever the specific sound may be. These cross-currents will be the topic of the keynote address, by Texas-music author Joe Nick Patoski (Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Selena: Como La Flor), named after 1960s Houston bluesman Juke Boy Bonner’s song “Houston, the Action Town.”
“For me, when I look at the city, I see a few different things that have really fed into that,” Ottenweiler says. “No. 1, [it’s a] port city. I really can’t stress that too much. Because we’re an economic hub, a friend of mine jokingly refers to Houston as a work camp. Folks come here because they’re looking for economic opportunity, not because we have beautiful scenery or fantastic weather,” she chuckles.
“So you’ve got this stew that way, so you’re going to get folks from all over the place coming in,” Ottenweiler continues. “And then as you have one portion of a key group get settled here, they invite other folks from their communities from where they came from to come and join them. So you have that flow. And then, because of the fact that it’s an economic hub, it’s forced combination of those groups, so there’s going to be kind of a dialogue and sharing of stuff between them.”
Houston’s famous (or notorious) lack of zoning laws inevitably played a role. Ottenweiler notes that the founder of SugarHill Studios — originally known as Gold Star Studios, and also the subject of a panel Saturday — got his start by setting up a sign in his uncle’s yard offering to fix people’s radios, before moving the business to Telephone Road and then his house on Brock Street, where SugarHill has stood to this day. Likewise, Houston’s various indigenous musical communities were more or less allowed to develop according to their own pace and their own rules, without drawing much interest or interference, because, for lack of a better term, the people in charge of the city just didn’t care about the musical riches all around them. (Or else they didn’t fathom much profit potential in a bunch of blues musicians, honky-tonkers, rock and rollers, or underground rappers.)
“My guess, really, is that the folks who were setting the cultural agenda just were ignoring [them],” Ottenweiler says of Houston’s homegrown musicians. “That’s my idea, and that’s also my experience, to be perfectly honest with you. You have no idea how embarrassed I am that I was going to school at U of H, and within blocks of where I was, I could have accessed an amazing wealth of talent.
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“And I didn’t,” she continues. “I was putting myself through school, so I’ll use that as my excuse, but I was oblivious. I was listening to Duran Duran, for God’s sakes. Maybe we just all collectively didn’t have any taste, to realize how incredible it was. I don’t know.”
One of the principal reasons people study history is to sift through the past in order to apply its patterns and lessons to what’s going on in the present. Keeping that in mind, perhaps the biggest question looming over this weekend’s conference (and all its satellite events) is simple — is present-day Houston still worthy of the title “Action Town”? Let’s ask keynote speaker Joe Nick Patoski.
“Is it still the Action Town?” he says. “Well, with the biggest female act in show business and a rich, variegated underbelly that requires lifting up the rug, and more zydeco on a Saturday nite than anywhere else in the world, I'd say it is.”
See houstonhistoryalliance.org for tickets and more information about The History of Houston's Musical Soul.