Down in Dealey Plaza
The tourists mill about
And I am far from where we live
And I have not learned how to forgive
While much of "Blues in Dallas" does not explicitly seem to be about Dallas, Texas, this song of suppressed anger and judgment, whispered out over an up tempo strain of music, is quite clearly inspired by the emotions conjured through an examination of the city through an eerily personal lens. Following the same structure as the rest of the song, in the final stanza, the songwriter repeats, "down in Dealey Plaza, the tourists mill about." Dealey Plaza, in the West End of Dallas, is a very meaningful point to cite in this song, as it is the location of the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. Today, Dealey Plaza is a major tourist destination, and has revitalized the historic West End of Dallas, an area once typified by warehouses and the smog of industry. Here, the themes of retribution only hinted at in the rest of the song become more vivid, as the violence of that historical moment is referenced, and then strengthened through the lines that follow: "I am far from where we live, and I have not learned how to forgive/ But I will wait." Bordered on all sides by tall buildings, Dealey Plaza was an opportune site to execute an assassination, and mirrors the trajectory of this song, as it ascends to lofty heights, while maintaining some rooting in the physical and historical. It was from one of these buildings, the Texas School Book Depository, that Oswald fired the shot that killed Kennedy, and here is where the museum in Kennedy's honor stands today.
Dealey Plaza, from 19th floor of Regency Hyatt
Photo: Grosse, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"Blues in Dallas" from The Mountain Goats' lo-fi masterpiece All Hail West Texas
breaks from the standard spare guitar and vocals stylings of many of the other songs heard on this album. John Darnielle (the main singer, songwriter and sometimes sole member of The Mountain Goats) here uses three notes on a keyboard and a stock rhythm over which he records his wavering vocals. While the title of this track quite obviously points us to Dallas, Texas as the locale from which the song is composed, the musings of the narrator seem to be more otherworldly. Yet, Dallas remains the home base of the narrator's mysterious account of revenge and destruction, a busy metropolis that grew up around cotton and railroad industries, full of history and rooted still in the politics of commerce.
The first lines of "Blues in Dallas" introduce the apocalyptic thread that runs throughout the song, as Darnielle quietly sings, "will I see you there when that final trumpet blows?" Following a very traditional song structure most closely associated with the early days of the blues, Darnielle repeats this line twice, before introducing a new line, and then using repetition for the final three lines of the stanza. Each of the three stanzas of this short melody follow this structure. Interestingly, this structural ode to the blues emphasizes the southern, bluesy roots of the location from which the song is ostensibly written. The style of this tune closely follows the Delta Blues tradition that, while confined to a more northern region of the south, certainly had an influence on Blues musicians throughout the country. The first lines of the first stanza ponder on the actions of the judgment day, and the narrator sings to the person to whom the initial question is addressed, "if I don't see you there, I will run a comb through my hair/ and I will wait."
In the next stanza the musings of the narrator do not yet return to his physical location in the north of Texas, but still remain with these images of the visitation of God to earth with the purpose of judgment. Here Darnielle poses the question, "will you walk on in, when the angel summons you?" before countering the seeming innocence of the question with the words, "if I don't see you go, I will let the minions flow." This line could be read in several ways, or be treated as a piece of the song with little importance, but what is evident is that the narrator does not associate himself with the angels who might be doing the summoning, but instead is in the background, with a band of minions awaiting direction.
Clearly, it is not a stretch to assume that in the scene created in "Blues in Dallas," the narrator may more closely associate himself with the devil than the ghostly presences of angels and the all too romantic promise of heaven.Maggie Grimason
April 14, 2014