Why doesn’t Houston have a song? A song as indelible and timeless as the one for which Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco? That moved Frank Sinatra to toddle through Chicago on his way to the city that never sleeps, and made us all want to toddle along?
Think about it. Once we heard that Gary P. Nunn wanted to go home to Austin’s Armadillo, everybody wanted to go. We all promenaded with Rose and Bob Wills on that moonlit path in San Antone, and to the extent that people still dream of crashing sea-waves in Galveston, oh Galveston, Glen Campbell is the reason. Even The Flatlanders’ “Dallas” seems spot-on, if only because it calls the city “a rich man with a death wish in his eyes” and “a woman who will walk on you when you’re down.”
Given all the great songwriters Houston has inspired over the past hundred years, surely someone must have produced the song, right?
“There is only one possible option,” said celebrity chef Bryan Caswell, one of the many local experts willing to opine on the matter. We were intrigued until we heard the option: “Heaven, Hell or Houston” by ZZ Top. “Great Houston band and you can dance to it,” Caswell insisted. Moving on!
Catastrophic Theatre artistic director Jason Nodler likes Dean Martin’s swingin’ “Houston,” but his defense wasn’t exactly spirited. “I think if you were to poll Houstonians with this question, the number one answer would be there isn’t one, but the number two response would be that song,” he said. Next!
Performance poet Al the Plastic Clown nominated Willie Nelson’s live recording of “Whiskey River,” which doesn’t even mention Houston. (Disqualified! Although the song was indeed penned by Johnny Bush, a native.)
Jazz performer Julia Olivarez swears by Tom Waits’s somber “Fannin Street,” but only because she believes it would be cool for Waits to be our musical ambassador.
We were beginning to get nervous. Then, suddenly, a breakthrough:
“Houston is the action town and one of the greatest towns for the blues.”
The words came from the lips of Boom Boom Room owner Jackie Harris, and not only her. “Houston, The Action Town,” a 1969 song by Fifth Ward blues poet and one-man-band Juke Boy Bonner, was the hands-down favorite of at least three others we polled.
One thing that everyone agreed on, regardless of musical taste: Houston needs an anthem. Perhaps it was time for an official proclamation, no? Armed with Bonner’s tune, Iggy Pop’s “Houston Is Hot Tonight,” Scarface’s “On My Block,” Rodney Crowell’s “Telephone Road,” and all the others, we invaded the halls of power: the Park Center offices of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Holly Clapham, the organization’s vice president of marketing, had already listened to all the music by the time we arrived, at which point she informed us that she and the GHCVB would be getting behind exactly none of them.
Some, like the Crowell and Scarface, she deemed too subjective and personal. “Those are their stories,” Clapham said. Besides, both are prisoners of their Houston times: the Eisenhower-era East End in one, the oil bust, crack-beset ’80s in the other. Furthermore, Clapham insisted, songs don’t become city anthems by top-down fiat.
Point taken. We hit the streets.
Our first stop: the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, where we found 80-something Art Car Museum founder James Harithas mid-installation, along with his daughter Lea, herself a 40-something rocker. Both agreed to listen to our songbook, after which, yet again, “Houston, The Action Town” emerged the clear winner.
As Bonner delivered the song’s payoff lyric over his driving, rockabilly-esque boogie—Don’t be no chump behind what you’re pursuin’, ‘cause this city’s full of slickers, boy, so you better know what you’re doin’. ’Cause you know, Houston—that’s the action town—-the room erupted in laughter and lit with recognition.
Houston Chronicle entertainment writer Andrew Dansby, also a Bonner backer, believes the song’s sound is back in fashion. “Whenever I see a car commercial I think we need to give Juke Boy Bonner a better headstone,” he says.
Born on a farm outside Bellville in 1932, as a youth Weldon H. Phillip Bonner snuck into taverns and sang along to the jukeboxes—hence, his nickname. Later, Bonner learned to play guitar, harmonica, and the drums, singly at first, and then all at once. He was one of the three most prominent one-man-bands in the history of the blues. Never successful enough to give up his day job, however, and always overly fond of the bottle, Bonner died of cirrhosis in 1978.
“He was a beautiful man,” said friend Barbara Marshall in Lorenzo Thomas’s 2008 book Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition. “And he was like so many other Houstonians—dead before his time—because Houston kills its artists.”
Dansby said he was particularly impressed by the lyrics to Bonner’s “Houston,” and especially his “action town” description of the Bayou City. “That’s a very transferable thought, though I am sure it was very specific to him,” Dansby said. “Given the energy aspect here, it struck me as being something beyond whatever his initial intention was.” Further, the song’s driving beat captures Houston’s essential restlessness perfectly, Dansby noted, adding that one of the most obvious ways we “act” here is to tear down, to start over, to bury the past.
But not always, and especially not if we declare Bonner’s song our anthem. Who knows? Maybe the time is right for Houston to stop killing its artists and start resurrecting a few.
“An old blues song with a guy just chuggin’ along,” Dansby mused. “That’s something we can all get behind.”