Photos: 508 Park Avenue

508 Park Avenue

Credit: WFAA

The building at 508 Park Avenue in downtown Dallas is a music Mecca for Blues aficionados. It is here that Robert Johnson, whose songs influenced generations of later musicians, recorded 13 songs in the 1930s.

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WFAA

Posted on March 20, 2013 at 1:49 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 26 at 4:26 AM

DALLAS — In a forgotten corner of downtown, on a street rarely traveled, stands one of the city's rarest treasures.

"People come from all over the world to Dallas, and they're going one of two places that I know of," said Pat Bywaters, a member of the 508 Park Project. "Most of them are probably going to the JFK memorial. And if anybody else is going anywhere, they're coming here."

The building at 508 Park Avenue is a music Mecca for Blues aficionados.

On the third floor of this now-abandoned building, during the height of the Great Depression, a wandering musician from Mississippi named Robert Johnson recorded 13 songs in a makeshift studio.

"He had fairly limited success as I understand it," Bywaters said. "His records had marginal sales. He was not famous in his day."

Johnson's sound was raw and original. Some of his most famous songs include "Hell Hound On My Trail," "Terraplane Blues," "Me and the Devil Blues," and "Love In Vain."

Though Johnson was not popular in his day, his lyrics — genuine and deep — influenced other musicians including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton.

In 2004, Clapton came to 508 Park Avenue to sing Johnson's songs in the same studio where he did.

Warner Bros. built this building in 1929 to distribute motion pictures, but began recording music here as well.

"There are people who come from around the world and in Dallas to drive to this spot, and I have seen it with my own eyes," said the Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan. "They will slowly get out of their cars, walk over to that building, and they will touch it."

Buchanan saw 508 Park as an opportunity. He ministers to the homeless across the street at The Stewpot, and — along with First Presbyterian Church — Buchanan bought the building.

The 508 Park Project committee is now organizing fund-raising for a $14 million renovation of the building, a community garden and a neighboring amphitheater.

It could all be done in 18 months, Bywaters said.

But the building has a much richer history than Robert Johnson singing the Blues. More than 50 other artists also recorded here.

Early Western swing, country, and even Mexican musicians — more than 840 songs were recorded through these doors during that same period in the mid-to late 1930s.

"By looking only at Robert Johnson, we are mythologizing the building beyond recognition, because the significance of what happened at 508 Park is the diversity of the music that was recorded there," explained Alan Govenar, a filmmaker who is documenting 508 Park.

In addition, Govenar is also creating the Museum of Street Culture on the first floor, hoping to give the building broader significance.

"The idea of creating a museum of street culture is to link the history of blues, jazz, country, and vernacular music that happened in that building with the living history of hobo, tramp and homeless art," he said.

Legend has it that Johnson made a deal with the devil to learn to play the guitar. It's ironic, then, that a church is now resurrecting the building where much of his music was made.

E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com

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