With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved. It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.
A fixture of the Dallas blues scene during the 1920s, playing music that could perhaps best be described as a ragtime-rooted precursor to blues music, the Dallas String Band was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally. They were said to have sometimes employed a clarinet or saxophone, occasionally featured trumpeter Polite “Frenchy” Christian, and Blind Lemon Jefferson was also said to have sat in from time-to-time, though none of them ever appeared on any of the group’s records. The band’s repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”. Every December from 1927 until 1929, Dallas String Band recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas, ultimately resulting in a total of eight recorded sides—not including side-operations by its members—all of which were released. The group gained posthumous attention when their “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.
The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s, though little is known of his life. He was born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century. As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”. In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Following his brief recording career—which resulted in a twenty-one sides in total, solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac, and with the Dallas String Band—Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s. Marco Washington was born on June 30, 1886 in Marshall, Texas. He worked as a porter in a dry goods store in Grand Prairie and served in World War I prior to becoming a full-time musician. He played bass in Henry Williams’ String Band from Marshall before moving to Dallas. Purportedly, he taught his stepson, Dallas native Aaron Walker—also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, later shortened to simply “T-Bone Walker”—how to play guitar and several other instruments. He died in Dallas from complications of hypertension on December 30, 1952. Sam Harris was born in Palmer, Texas, on April 19, 1889. In addition to his musical activities, he worked as a laborer in Waxahachie. His later whereabouts and activities are undetermined.
Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass. Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, which Mack McCormick speculated as being Jones’ little brother “Kid Coley”, but I’m not so sure that more than one is present.
On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”. I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings. The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).
On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.
Updated on May 6, 2019.