Dido and Townes Van Zandt

At the north end of Eagle Mountain Lake west of Ft. Worth lies a town that’s mostly forgotten, but not exactly dead. Founded about 1848, Dido (pronounced with a long “i”) was at one time a thriving community. The land for a church, school and cemetery was donated by Isaac Van Zandt, a co-writer of the Texas Constitution, one of the founders of Fort Worth, and the man for whom Van Zandt county Texas is named after. His son, Dr. Isaac L. Van Zandt, a well respected doctor built a home in Dido. Named after the mythological queen of Carthage, by the 1880′s it had several stores, a post office, a Methodist church, a school with 36 students and a large cemetery. The town was growing and the future was bright.

Cherubs and flowers in the Dido Cemetery.
In the 1890′s, a railroad being built through the area bypassed Dido and, like hundreds of other small towns who suffered the same misfortune, residents began moving to towns along the railway and Dido soon lost its post office, its school, and most of its citizens. The Methodist church managed to hang on and is now the oldest Methodist church in Tarrant county.

In the late 1970′s, Dido found itself in the news for a short time due to a rumor. The infamous Cullen Davis, at one time one of the richest men in the world, after being acquitted of the murder of his 12-year-old daughter Andrea, the murder of his ex-wife’s lover, Stan Farr, and the attempted murders of his ex-wife Priscilla and Gus “Bubba” Gavrel, Jr, announced he was turning over his life to Jesus and smashed over 1 million dollars worth of jade, ivory, and gold objects because he said they honored false gods. The persistent rumor was that Cullen, with the help of a Dallas evangelist, dumped the smashed remains into Indian Creek from the bridge in Dido. The water was high and the creek empties into Eagle Mountain Lake, but for a few years, treasure hunters combed the creek looking for valuable pieces of these false gods.

A small, dark little bar still serves the few people who live in the area, but Dido is now largely a very quiet, almost forgotten bedroom community between Ft. Worth and Alliance Airport. The Dido cemetery however, attracts visitors as it is the resting place of over 1,000 residents, many of them important pioneers who died during the late 1800′s. The oldest marked grave is the 1879 plot for Amanda Thurmond, the 1-year-old daughter of Dave Thurmond who, along with his wife, first settled the area. It is also the final resting place for 1/2 of the ashes of a noted Texas musician who is little known by the mainstream of America.

John was born on March 7, 1944 in Ft. Worth, the son of Harris Van Zandt and Dorothy Townes. Harris Van Zandt, a direct descendant of the Van Zandt’s who founded Ft. Worth, was wealthy and his wife was just as rich. The law school building at the University of Texas in Austin, Townes Hall, bears her family name. John had a life of privilege as a child, attended a prestigious private school in Minnesota and then the University of Colorado, but instead of going into the family oil business, he chose a life as a wandering singer and song writer.

The Van Zandt family headstone in
Dido cemetery.
John had a number of problems, both psychological and with drugs and alcohol. Once, while sitting on the railing of his 4th floor condo during a party, he announced to those with him that he wanted to know what falling felt like. He then slowly leaned back until he dropped. Amazingly, due evidently to some bushes and ground softened by recent rains, he survived, but his parents submitted him to a mental hospital. The doctors diagnosed him as a schizophrenic-reactionary manic depressive and gave him insulin shock treatments. The treatments erased all of his childhood memories and left him without any attachment to his past.

A creative genius with self-destructive habits, John was eventually cut off from his family’s wealth and for the rest of his life, he didn’t have money to speak of. Even when he did make some, he either gave it away to others who were down on their luck or spent it feeding his demons. Despite these challenges, John, who started going by his middle name, Townes, eventually earned the labels of “poet laureate of Texas,” “premier poet of the time,” “the James Joyce of Texas songwriting,” and “best writer in the country genre.”

At the age of 15, after seeing Elvis on the Edd Sullivan show, Townes purchased a cheap guitar and taught himself to play. He was influenced by diverse performers like Elvis, Sam “Lightning” Hopkins, Woodie Guthrie, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Van Cliburn, Mozart, Jefferson Airplane, and the early songs of Bob Dylan.

Here lies 1/2 of Townes Van Zandt.
The songs Townes wrote and the man himself profoundly influenced other more well-known performers like Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Emmy Lou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Don Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Townes much preferred to play in small venues like coffee shops and small clubs and perhaps partly because of this, he never achieved wide acclaim, but his songs were hits for many other performers. Perhaps his best known song was a number 1 hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Poncho and Lefty - youtube link. Emmy Lou Harris and Don Williams sang his song, If I Needed You which it went to number 3 on the charts – youtube link. Townes took part in the 1981 outlaw country documentary ”Heartworn Highways” youtube link in which he sings the first song he wrote, Waiting Around To Die.

After many battles against his drug addiction, depression, and alcoholism, John Townes Van Zandt suffered a heart attack and passed away on January 1, 1997. He was cremated and his ashes divided with 1/2 going to his last ex-wife and their children and the other half buried in the Van Zandt family plot in Dido Cemetery.

Good-by to all my friends, it's time to go again
Just think about the poetry and the pickin' down the line
I'll miss the system here, the bottom's low and the treble's clear
But it don't pay to think too much on the things you leave behind

Oh I may be gone, But it won't be long
I'll be a bringing back the melodies
And the rhythms that I found

We all got holes to fill & them holes are all that's real
Some fall on you like a storm, sometimes you dig your own
The choice is yours to make, time is yours to take
Some dive into the sea, some toil upon the stone

To Live Is To Fly Both low and high
So shake the dust off of your broken wings
And the sleep out of you eyes
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.

"Waiting Around To Die" by Townes Van Zandt