We danced in the past, let’s dance in the future.
Imagine being in Fort Worth back in the 1930s, when one could mosey (people did that back then) down to a small alcove near the Trinity River, listen to the crickets chirp and the river flow by and, off in the distance, hear the floorboards rumble as dancers swung their partners ‘round and ‘round as Bob Wills shouted, “Take it away, Leon!”
It was a different time. But to hear old Fort Worthians talk, it was a great time. Oh, they were younger then, sure. Times were hard – the Great Depression, you know. But there was a place to secure respite from the frets and worries of daily life: Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, a dance hall and family entertainment center featuring music, barbecue, fishing and swimming in natural spring water down by the river, nestled around Roberts Cut Off and White Settlement Road. There was dancing of course, maybe even for a few Baptist and Church of Christ kids. Please, don’t tell their parents!
There was music, courtesy of two innovators who made their mark on Texas and the world – Bob Wills and Milton Brown. They knew how to entertain and most-importantly, make people dance away their troubles, reignite their hopes and dreams. Oh yeah, on the side, Wills and Brown gave birth to Western Swing. And, through it all, there was the river, that constant factor in the history of the city.
Brown, tragically, died in 1936, just as people were catching on that something special was happening. Wills carried on with this magic alchemy of country, jazz, swing, big band and fiddle music long enough to see his sound revived and worshipped by the likes of Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait and Willie Nelson. Now those bands have carried on long enough to see bands like Hot Club of Cowtown and Junior Brown take the Western Swing vision into uncharted territory.
Like a prophet in his hometown, Wills and his music garner scant respect here, being more revered in Austin and – believe it or not – Holland and England, where Western Swing bands seem to always be in fashion.
Crystal Springs fell into disrepair, eventually engulfed in flames in 1966. Any hopes to revive that legacy seemed to fall along with the timbers of the pavilion.
But that’s about to change. And, like many things good about Fort Worth, it has to do with the river.
The River District, a project put together by Fort Capital, Greystar, James R. Harris, LVG Investments and Village Homes, is reviving Crystal Springs, bringing music back to the area and even getting Western Swing a historical marker, citing Crystal Springs as the place where Western Swing first conjured its mesmerizing beat.
“The Trinity River is the reason we’re here,” said Mike Dike, of Village Homes. “It’s part of our history, part of our culture.”
Chris Powers Jr. of Fort Capital, says the city doesn’t need just another building project. “We need more gathering spots, more well-designed neighborhoods, more uncommon restaurants, more concert venues, more walkable areas, more places to enjoy.”
You can’t recreate the past. Nostalgia is a dead-end street.
But we’ve still got frets and worries. And if there’s a place where we can dance our troubles away and reignite our hopes and dreams? What’s not to like? Besides, Western Swing was born here and it’s as much a part of our history as that river. Let’s embrace it with our heart, our soul and, most importantly, our feet.
As Bob Wills would say, when he was ready for his ace steel guitar player to solo, “Take it away, Leon!”