Editor’s Note: Until longtime Texas Music writer Coy Prather began doing research on some articles for the magazine, he’d never heard of Texas Alexander, but the sketchy details that comprised the singer’s narrative intrigued Prather, and he devoted a good portion of the next few years tracking down information on “Texas” — so nicknamed because of the big cowboy hat he wore.
That led to Prather’s determination to recognize the bluesman, who died a pauper but who left a lasting mark on dozens of legendary artists, including Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lowell Fulson.
Alexander’s burial site in Montgomery County had no headstone, but, inspired by Prather’s work, the Killer Blues Headstone Project, a Michigan nonprofit that places markers for forgotten blues musicians, added the stone. Above the name “Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander” are just two words: “Blues Legend.”
Following this, Prather lobbied to establish a state historical marker to recognize Alexander. Beginning in 2014, Prather worked with members of the historical commission and other volunteers. His efforts came to fruition in 2016. The marker, at Alexander’s gravesite in the Longstreet Cemetery in Montgomery County, honors the man “internationally recognized as a father of Texas Blues.”
Prather’s new book, A Tombstone for Texas: Texas Alexander and the Blues Pioneers of Texas, is available on Amazon. With permission of the author, we’re running this short excerpt, followed by a Q&A with Prather about the book and its subject.
A TOMBSTONE FOR TEXAS:
TEXAS ALEXANDER AND THE BLUES PIONEERS OF TEXAS
Coy Mac Prather
You hear Texas Alexander’s influence in the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan or in B.B. King. It is Alexander’s music that helped create the classic style of rock ’n’ roll, with its call-and-repeat lyrics and pounding beat. The looping style of rock ’n’ roll is one that recalls the original blues. It evolved from hokum music to sly sexual innuendo in the lyrics of the 1950s, understood only by the teenagers buying the records.
Alexander’s mentoring of blues icons Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lowell Fulson, as well as his singing with guitarist Lonnie Johnson and others, preserved the authentic blues, the most powerful and original of all musical genres. If Blind Lemon Jefferson is the “Father of Texas blues,” then Texas Alexander should be deemed its godfather.
Alexander never sought to change. In fact, he refused to change. He simply wanted to sing. Meal money and a room were all he desired. He knew, with the death of his brother, grandmother and other relatives and friends that his mortality was inevitable. At times he seemed haunted by the notion of mortality. In “One Morning Blues,” he sings, “I said the graveyard, graveyard is a low-down dirty old place / They’ll put you in it, pat dirt all in your face.”
Alexander’s lyrics were poignant, his diction clear. As a primitive blues singer, he was remarkably sensitive, penetrating almost. And he had the ability to be poetic. In “Deep Blue Seas,” he sings
I’m goin’ to be arraigned, gonna sign my initials down
I’m goin’ to be arraigned, gonna sign my initials down
That was Alexander’s way of saying, “I’ll be judged someday (after death), and my name will be on a marker.” Till his tombstone mysteriously appeared, however, there was no such marker with initials. Now, finally, there’s a tombstone for Texas Alexander.
Of course, Alexander’s true legacy was his gift of 66 recordings, some of the finest primordial hollers and shouts ever put on tape. His songs are some of the most important in the evolutionary development of the blues. Had Alexander lived a few more years he might have been part of the blues revival, which occurred in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Recently Joe Thomas, sexton at Longstreet Cemetery in Montgomery County, told me, “I’m surprised how many people come to the cemetery — they look at his grave, they read the marker, they linger at the grave.” Texas Alexander would appreciate and cherish the audience. He might even be among the trees, laughing and passing the hat.
Q&A: Coy Prather
How did you learn about Texas Alexander? What was it about him that captured your imagination?
I collected records growing up, and once had a business selling rare records. Blues records sell for high prices, so I found myself listening to those recordings. It made me interested in the origins of songs. I learned that songs like “C.C. Ryder,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Corinne Corinna,” “Stagger Lee” and other rock hits were first blues songs.
I was researching articles for Texas Music when I came upon the name Texas Alexander. He was barely mentioned as an artist but mostly mentioned as a person who went to prison for murdering his wife. It was said he served time in Paris, Texas. I grew up in Paris and knew there was never a prison there. That captured my interest and motivated me to explore his history.
How would you describe his blues? What distinguished his playing/singing from other blues musicians?
Alexander was a purely primitive blues singer. He never learned to play an instrument. His voice was dominating — he could walk into a juke joint, start singing and take over. Often at picnics or ball games held in black settlements or villages, he’d set up on a trailer and start singing, and the baseball game would be over. He was a pure blues artist, call-and-answer in the old way of field hands in Texas. But his lyrics and his ability to move audiences with his music made him one of the top-selling blues artists in the late 1920s.
He’s not a well-publicized artist. How did you acquire information about him? What was your research process?
There was little information on Alexander, and much of it was false rumor. It took me four years of research to piece together his life. I scoured thousands of census records and archives at local courthouses in Texas. I had assistance also from some of the finest blues historians in America and Europe, who were very kind to acknowledge me and to help me out.
What was the biggest challenge you faced writing the book?
This was my first book, except for a book of poetry, so that was a challenge. I’d written magazine and newspaper articles for decades, but book writing is a different animal. The lack of written information on Alexander and the lack of any family history made it tough. I ran down — once again with assistance — his great, great nephew, and he made the family ties fit together.
What was something you learned about Alexander that most surprised you?
The fact that he was so well thought of by his record company, OKeh. They had him record with the finest musicians of his era. OKeh was a top blues recording company — the genre then was called “race music” — and they had Texas Alexander record with the likes of Eddie Lang (Bing Crosby’s guitarist), King Oliver (Louis Armstrong’s idol), Clarence Williams, and Grammy legends the Mississippi Sheiks. Alexander’s records with Lonnie Johnson on guitar were seminal recordings. Johnson practically invented the rock guitar fill while playing with Alexander. Both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton have acknowledged Johnson’s contribution to rock guitar, on Alexander’s recordings.
You were instrumental in bringing Alexander to the public. Describe the process of establishing both a tombstone and, eventually, a historical marker.
I was fortunate. I originally read a story about a couple from Holland who traveled to America to visit Alexander’s grave and found nothing. That struck me — I’ve always felt every person should have a memorial to their life. I contacted Tom Buckley, the editor at Texas Music, and he agreed to help, and we ran an article about Alexander’s unmarked grave. I then contacted Larry Forester with the Montgomery County Historical Commission to petition to place a historical marker at the gravesite. Finally, after two years of work, the historical marker was awarded.
Next, we had to find the grave. Joe Thomas, the cemetery sexton who was in his 80s, had been at the cemetery for decades. When we finally located the burial site, we discovered to our surprise the grave was marked with a tombstone. Turns out the Killer Blues Headstone Project, which places markers at the unmarked graves of blues singers, had seen the article in Texas Music and ultimately took credit for planting the tombstone. Joe Thomas never knew exactly who placed the marker there. “It just appeared” he said.
Why is it vital to learn about these early blues singers who never received the recognition they deserved?
They formed the foundation for rock ’n’ roll, jazz and some pop and folk tunes. Their contributions deserve recognition simply because if we don’t know our musical history, we tend to put up walls and barriers instead of embracing. Recently, blackface minstrel music has come under fire as racist. The performances were no doubt mocking, disgusting and racist in their root forms, but the songs associated with blackface minstrels are mainly without malice and gained great popularity. Without blackface minstrel music performed for the masses, much of our modern music, which originated with African American singer/songwriters, wouldn’t have been heard by white audiences. It would be lost. We need to take everything in the context of the era where it originated.
Early blues singers sang hokum music, with strong sexual imagery. Even the term “rock ’n’ roll” was originally a black term referring to having sex. The early blues singers were freer with lyrics, and dancing was an integral part of the music.
Music from these artists is the basis of American popular song. We need to learn the entire musical history journey so we appreciate how our music evolved and came to be as it is in America, where we’re a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds and races.
What else should we know about Texas Alexander that you haven’t already touched on?
His life was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. He started working in the cotton field, deserted by his mother and father. He finally made his way to Deep Ellum in Dallas, where he landed a record deal. He was one of the top-selling blues artists in America in the late 1920s to the early ’30s.
He wound up back in Houston busking on the streets with Lightnin’ Hopkins in the late ’40s and tragically died from syphilis, poor and broke, living with an aunt. He was buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten for decades. His music is the original bridge from slaves who worked the cotton patch/plantation to the blues music of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.
Directions to Texas Alexander’s grave and historical marker: Go north on FM 149 E till you reach Bays Chapel Road (also called Longstreet Road). Then go east one-quarter mile to County Road 209. The marker is located in the northeast section of the cemetery.