Southern Agenda

Deep Ellum’s 150 Years of Grooves

An illustration of four musicians coming out of a Texas shape; in the middle is an illustration of a town and rows of shops

For a glimpse into Deep Ellum’s 150-year-old personality, look no further than the vibrant murals painted stories high along the Dallas neighborhood’s streets and alleyways. You’ll find depictions of such local legends as the late guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, former Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, and bluesman Robert Johnson, along with weird and wonderful images of colorful elephants, a T. rex playing guitar, and E.T. raising his iconic glowing finger for Instagrammers to touch. Settled along Elm (sometimes pronounced “Ellum” by early residents) Street in 1873 after the Civil War, Deep Ellum became a commercial and residential hub for African Americans and new immigrants, boasting a cotton gin factory, a Ford plant, and a hungry art and music scene. “Deep Ellum was founded by people with bigger dreams than their surroundings,” says Breonny Lee, a Dallas native and president of the Deep Ellum Community Association. “And when do-it-yourself, creative people get together, they tend to flourish.” In the case of Deep Ellum, flourishing involved incubating icons of jazz and blues—and later rock, punk, and country—including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, T-Bone Walker, and Bessie Smith. Today music remains the main pull; on any given weekend, you might find rock group the Fall of Troy at the beloved venue Trees, the local alternative band King Clam at Three Links, or Patterson Hood at the historic Sons of Hermann Hall. As the neighborhood marks its birthday, it also celebrates the opening of a new community center, with a permanent exhibition on the area’s history, a music listening room, a functional 1930s recording studio, and a gallery to showcase the work of artists continuing to evolve Deep Ellum’s culture. “All in space run by and for the community,” Lee says. “Because as with anything that’s really special, the place is only as good as the people.”