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Boogie-woogie is a style of piano-based blues that became very popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but originated much earlier, and was extended from piano, to three pianos at once, guitar, big band, and country and western music, and even gospel. Whilst the blues traditionally depicts a variety of emotions, boogie-woogie is mainly associated with dancing. It's believed boogie-woogie gave birth to the earliest versions of up-tempo music. The lyrics of one of the very earliest, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie", consist entirely of instructions to dancers:
It is not strictly a solo piano style, but is also used to accompany singers and as a solo part in bands and small combos. It is sometimes called "eight to the bar", as much of it is written in common time (4/4) time using eighth notes (quavers) (see time signature). The chord progressions are typically based on I - IV - V - I (with many formal variations of it, such as I/i - IV/iv - v/I, as well as chords that lead into these ones.
For the most part, boogie-woogie tunes are twelve-bar blues, although the style has been applied to popular songs like "Swanee River" and hymns like "(Just a) Closer Walk with Thee."
The origin of the term boogie-woogie is unknown, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word is a redoubling of boogie, which was used for rent parties as early as 1913.
However, Dr. John Tennison, a San Antonio psychiatrist, pianist, and musicologist has suggested some interesting linguistic precursors. Among them are four African terms, including the Hausa word “Boog” and the Mandingo word “Booga,” both of which mean “to beat,” as in beating a drum. There is also the West African word “Bogi,” which means “to dance,” and the Congo term “Mbuki Mvuki,” which means “shucking off one’s clothes so as to be able to better dance or perform.”
The meanings of all these words are consistent with the percussiveness, dancing, and uninhibited behaviors historically associated with Boogie Woogie music. Their African origin is also consistent with the evidence that the music originated among newly emancipated African-Americans.
In the sheet music literature prior to 1900, there are at least three examples of the use of the word “Bogie” in titles of music in the archives of the Library of Congress.
As of 1901, “Hoogie Boogie” appears in the title of published sheet music. This is the first known instance where the word “Boogie” occurs in the title of published music.
As far as audio recordings are concerned, the first appearance of “Boogie” in the title of a recording appears to be a “blue cylinder” recording made by Edison of the “American Quartet” performing “That Synchopated Boogie Boo” in 1913.
“Boogie” next occurs in the title of Wilbur Sweatman’s April 1917 recording of “Boogie Rag.” However none of these sheet music or audio-recording examples contain the musical elements that would identify them as “Boogie Woogie.”
The 1919 recordings (2 takes) of "Weary Blues" by the Louisiana Five contain the same Boogie Woogie bass figure as appears in the 1915 "Weary Blues" sheet music by Artie Matthews. Dr. John Tennison has recognized these 1919 recordings as the earliest sound recordings which contain a Boogie Woogie bass figure.
Blind Lemon Jefferson used the term “Booga Rooga” to refer to a guitar bass figure that he used in “Match Box Blues.” Jefferson may have heard the term from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who played frequently with Jefferson. Leadbelly, who was born in Mooringsport, La. and grew up in Harrison County, Texas in the community of Leigh, said he first heard Boogie Woogie piano in the Caddo Lake Area of northeast Texas in 1899. He said it influenced his guitar-playing. Leadbelly also said he heard Boogie Woogie piano in the Fannin Street district of Shreveport, Louisiana. Some of the players he heard were Dave “Black Ivory King” Alexander, or possibly another Dave Alexander known as “Little Dave Alexander” and a piano player called Pine Top (not Pine Top Smith, who wasn’t born until 1904, but possibly Pine Top Williams or Pine Top Hill.) and Lead Belly was among the first guitar-players to adapt the rolling bass of Boogie Woogie piano.
Texas as the state of origin became reinforced by Jelly Roll Morton who said he heard the boogie piano style there early in the century; so did Leadbelly and so did Bunk Johnson, according to Rosetta Reitz.
The first time the modern-day spelling of “Boogie Woogie” was used in a title of a published audio recording of music appears to be Pine Top Smith’s December 1928 recording titled, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” a song whose lyrics contain dance instructions to “boogie woogie.”
Earliest Attempts to Determine a Geographical Origin for Boogie Woogie
The earliest documented inquiries into the geographical origin of Boogie Woogie occurred in the late 1930s when oral histories from the oldest living Americans of both African and European descent, revealed a broad consensus that Boogie Woogie piano was first played in Texas in the early 1870s. Additional citations place the origins of Boogie Woogie in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas. "The first Negroes who played what is called boogie woogie, or house-rent music, and attracted attention in city slums where other Negroes held jam sessions, were from Texas. And all the Old-time Texans, black or white, are agreed that boogie piano players were first heard in the lumber and turpentine camps, where nobody was at home at all. The style dates from the early 1870s."
The “Fast Western” Connection to Marshall & Harrison County, Texas
Max Harrison (in the book Jazz edited by Hentoff and McCarthy in 1959) and Mack McCormick (in the liner notes to his Treasury of Field Recordings, VOL. 2) conclude that "Fast Western" was the first term by which Boogie Woogie was known.
Also, "In Houston, Dallas, and Galveston — all Negro piano players played that way. This style was often referred to as a 'fast western' or 'fast blues' as differentiated from the 'slow blues' of New Orleans and St. Louis. At these gatherings the ragtime and blues boys could easily tell from what section of the country a man came, even going so far as to name the town, by his interpretation of a piece.”
According to Dr. John Tennison, when he interviewed Lee Ree Sullivan in Texarkana in 1986, Sullivan told him that he was familiar with "Fast Western" and "Fast Texas" as terms to refer to Boogie Woogie in general, but not to denote the use of any specific bass figure used in Boogie Woogie. Sullivan said that "Fast Western" and "Fast Texas" were terms that derived from the "Texas Western" Railroad Company of Harrison County. The company was formed on February 16, 1852, but did not build track from Swanson’s Landing at Caddo Lake to Marshall, Texas, until after changing its name to "Southern Pacific" on August 16, 1856. This Texas-based "Southern Pacific" was the first "Southern Pacific" railroad, and was not connected to the more well known "Southern Pacific" originating in San Francisco, California. The Texas-based Southern Pacific Railroad was bought out by the newly-formed Texas and Pacific Railroad on March 21, 1872.
Although the "Texas Western" Railroad Company changed its name to "Southern Pacific," Sullivan said the name "Texas Western" stuck among the slaves who constructed the first railway hub in northeast Texas from Swanson’s Landing to the city of Marshall
The Railroad Connection to Marshall & Harrison County, Texas
A key to identifying the geographical area in which Boogie Woogie originated is understanding the relationship of Boogie Woogie music with the steam railroad, both in the sense of how the music might have been influenced by sounds associated with the arrival of steam locomotives as well as the cultural impact the sudden emergence of the railroad might have had on newly emancipated African Americans.
The railroad did not “arrive” in northeast Texas as an extension of track from existing lines from the north or the east. Rather, the first railroad locomotives and iron rails were brought to northeast Texas via steamboats from New Orleans via the Mississippi and Red Rivers and Caddo Lake to Swanson’s Landing, located on the Louisiana/Texas state line. Beginning with the formation of the Texas Western Railroad Company in Marshall, Texas, through the subsequent establishment in 1871 of the Texas and Pacific Railway company, which located its headquarters and shops there, Marshall was the only railroad hub in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas at the time the music developed. The sudden appearance of steam locomotives, and the building of mainline tracks and tap lines to serve logging operations was pivotal to the creation of the music in terms of its sound and rhythm. It was also crucial to the rapid migration of the musical style from the rural barrel house camps to the cities and towns served by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company.
"Although the neighboring states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri would also produce boogie-woogie players and their boogie-woogie tunes, and despite the fact that Chicago would become known as the center for this music through such pianists as Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, and Meade 'Lux" Lewis, Texas was home to an environment that fostered creation of boogie-style: the lumber, cattle, turpentine, and oil industries, all served by an expanding railway system from the northern corner of East Texas to the Gulf Coast and from the Louisiana border to Dallas and West Texas." Alan Lomax, wrote: "Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train."
In the 1986 television broadcast of Britain's "South Bank Show" about Boogie Woogie, music historian Paul Oliver, noted: "Now the conductors were used to the logging camp pianists clamoring aboard, telling them a few stories, jumping off the train, getting into another logging camp, and playing again for eight hours, barrel house. In this way the music got around -- all through Texas -- and eventually, of course, out of Texas. Now when this new form of piano music came from Texas, it moved out towards Louisiana. It was brought by people like George Thomas, an early pianist who was already living in New Orleans by about 1910 and writing "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," which really has some of the characteristics of the music that we came to know as Boogie."
Paul Oliver also writes that George W. Thomas “composed the theme of the New Orleans Hop Scop Blues – in spite of its title – based on the blues he had heard played by the pianists of East Texas.” On February 12, 2007, Paul Oliver confirmed to John Tennison that it was Sippie Wallace who told Oliver that performances by East Texas pianists had formed the basis for George Thomas's "Hop Scop Blues."
George Thomas and his brother Hersal Thomas migrated from Texas to Chicago, and brought Boogie Woogie with them. They were an immense influence on other pianists, including Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and many others. Many elements that we now know as elements of "Boogie Woogie" are present in Hersal and George Thomas' "The Fives." According to Dr. John Tennison, "although some Boogie Woogie bass figures were present in prior sheet music, the thing that made 'The Fives' so special was the greater amount and variety of Boogie Woogie bass figures that were present in the music as compared to Boogie Woogie bass figures that had been present in previously published sheet music, such as the 1915 “Weary Blues” by Artie Matthews.
"Albert Ammons and Meade 'Lux' Lewis claim that 'The Fives,' [copyrighted in 1921 and published in 1922] the Thomas brothers' musical composition, deserves much credit for the development of modern Boogie Woogie. During the twenties, many pianists featured this number as a 'get off' tune and in the variations played what is now considered Boogie Woogie."
Indeed, all modern Boogie Woogie bass figures can be found in "The Fives," including swinging, walking broken-octave bass, shuffled (swinging) chord bass (of the sort later used extensively by Ammons, Lewis, and Clarence "Pine Top" Smith), and the ubiquitous "oom-pah" ragtime stride bass.
T&P Stops Associated With Names for Boogie Woogie Left-hand Bass Lines
Early generation Boogie Woogie players recognized basic Boogie Woogie bass lines by geographical locations with which they associated them. Lee Ree Sullivan identified a number of these left hand bass lines for Dr. John Tennison in 1989. From the primitive to the complex, those identifications indicate that the most primitive form of the music was associated with Marshall, Texas – and that the left-hand bass lines grew more complex as the distance from Marshall increased.
The most primitive of these left hand bass lines is the one that was called “the Marshall.” It is a simple, four-beats-to-the-bar figure The second-most primitive bass-line, called “the Jefferson,” is also four-beats-to-the-bar, but goes down in pitch on the last note in each four-note cycle. It has been suggested that this downturn in pitch reveals a possible New Orleans influence. Jefferson, Texas, about 17 miles north of Marshall, was the westernmost port of a steamboat route that connected to New Orleans via Caddo Lake, the Red River, and the Mississippi River.
The remaining bass lines rise in complexity with distance from Marshall, Texas as one would expect variations and innovations would occur as the territory in which the music has been introduced expands. (A complete list and the musical notations for each may be seen in "BOOGIE WOOGIE: Its Origin, Subsequent History, and Continuing Development -- by John Tennison (A.K.A. Nonjohn) -- Updated November 3, 2010, at www.bowofo.org .)
Other Indications Marshall & Harrison County Texas is the most likely point of origination of Boogie Woogie Music.
In January, 2010, Dr. John Tennison summarized his research into the origins of Boogie Woogie with the conclusion that Marshall, Texas is "the municipality whose boundaries are most likely to encompass or be closest to the point on the map which is the geographic center of gravity for all instances of Boogie Woogie performance between 1870 and 1880."
Dr. Tennison states: "Given the account of Elliot Paul, and given that Lead Belly witnessed Boogie Woogie in 1899 in the Arklatex; and given the North to South migration of the Thomas family; and given the Texas & Pacific headquarters in Marshall in the early 1870s; and given that Harrison County had the largest slave population in the state of Texas; and given the fact that the best-documented and largest-scale turpentine camps in Texas did not occur until after 1900 in Southeast Texas, it is most probable that Boogie Woogie spread from Northeast to Southeast Texas, rather than from Southeast to Northeast Texas, or by having developed diffusely with an even density over all of the Piney Woods of East Texas. It would not be surprising if there was as yet undiscovered evidence of the earliest Boogie Woogie performances buried (metaphorically or literally) in Northeast Texas."
On May 13, 2010, the Marshall City Commission enacted an official declaration naming Marshall as the “birthplace” of Boogie Woogie music, and embarked on a program to encourage additional historical research and to stimulate interest in and appreciation for the early African-American culture in northeast Texas that played a vital role in creating Boogie Woogie music.
The City of Marshall, Texas is committed to cooperating with any and all efforts to unearth Boogie Woogie history and to honor, celebrate, and re-create the vibrant environment that was catalytic to the creation of the most entertaining, revolutionary, and influential of all American musical forms.
Development of modern Boogie Woogie
'The Fives', which was composed by George and Hersal Thomas from Texas, was copyrighted in 1921 and published in 1922, deserves much credit for the development of modern Boogie Woogie. All modern Boogie Woogie bass figures can be found in "The Fives," including swinging, walking broken-octave bass, shuffled (swinging) chord bass (of the sort later used by Ammons, Lewis, and Clarence "Pine Top" Smith), and the ubiquitous "oom-pah" ragtime stride bass.
A song titled "Tin Roof Blues" was published in 1923 by the Clarence Williams Publishing Company. Compositional credit is given to Richard M. Jones. The Jones composition uses a boogie bass in the introduction with some variation throughout. In February of 1923 Joseph Samuels' Tampa Blue Jazz Band recorded the George W. Thomas number "The Fives" for Okeh Records, considered the first example of jazz band boogie-woogie.
Jimmy Blythe's recording of "Chicago Stomps" from April 1924 is sometimes called the first complete boogie-woogie piano solo record.
The first boogie woogie hit was "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith (1928 in music) recorded in 1928 and first released in 1929. Pinetop's record was the first boogie-woogie recording to be a commercial hit, and helped establish boogie-woogie as the name of the style. It was closely followed by another example of pure boogie-woogie, "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis, recorded by Paramount Records; 1927 in music, first released in March of 1930. The performance emulates a railroad trip, perhaps lending credence to the 'train theory'.
Late 1930s: Carnegie Hall
These three pianists, with Turner, took up residence in the Café Society night club in New York City where they were popular with the sophisticated set. They often played in combinations of two and even three pianos, creating a richly textured piano performance.
The trickle of what was initially called hillbilly boogie, or Okie boogie (later to be renamed country boogie), became a flood beginning around late 1945. One notable country boogie from this period was the Delmore Brothers "Freight Train Boogie", considered to be part of the combined evolution of country music and blues towards rockabilly. In 1948 Arthur Smith achieved Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recordings of "Guitar Boogie" and "Banjo Boogie", with the former crossing over to the US pop chart, introducing many people to the potential of the electric guitar. The hillbilly boogie period lasted into the 1950s, the last recordings of this era were made by Tennessee Ernie Ford with Cliffie Stone and his orchestra with the great guitar duo Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. Bill Haley and the Saddlemen recorded two boogies in 1951.
The boogie beat continued in country music through the end of the 20th century. The Charlie Daniels Band (whose earlier tune "The South's Gonna Do It Again" uses boogie-woogie influences) released "Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues" in 1988, and three years later in 1991 Brooks & Dunn had a huge hit with "Boot Scootin' Boogie".
More representative examples can be found in some of the songs of Western swing pioneer Bob Wills, and subsequent tradition-minded country artists such as Asleep At The Wheel, Merle Haggard, and even George Strait.
The popularity of the Carnegie Hall concerts meant work for many of the fellow boogie players and also led to the adaptation of boogie-woogie sounds to many other forms of music. Tommy Dorsey's band had a hit with "T.D.'s Boogie Woogie" as arranged by Sy Oliver and soon there were boogie-woogie songs, recorded and printed, of many different stripes. Most famously, in the big-band genre, the ubiquitous "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which was revamped recently by Christina Aguilera as her 2006 hit, "Candyman".
In the many styles of blues, especially Chicago blues and (more recently) West Coast blues, most pianists were influenced by, and employed, the traditional boogie woogie styles. Some of the earliest and most influential were Big Maceo Merriweather and, later, Sunnyland Slim (perhaps the greatest of all Chicago blues pianists). Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins, two of the best known blues pianists, are heavily boogie-woogie influenced, with the latter taking both his name and signature tune from Pinetop Smith.
The boogie-woogie fad lasted from the late 1930s into the early fifties, and made a major contribution to the development of jump blues and ultimately to rock and roll, epitomized by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Boogie woogie is still to be heard in clubs and on records throughout Europe and North America. Big Joe Duskin displayed on his 1979 album, Cincinnati Stomp, a command of piano blues and boogie-woogie, which he had absorbed at first hand in the 1940s from Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.
In classical music, the composer Conlon Nancarrow was also deeply influenced by boogie-woogie, as many of his early works for player piano demonstrate. "A Wonderful Time Up There" is a boogie woogie gospel song. Povel Ramel's first hit in 1944 was Johanssons boogie-woogie-vals where he mixed boogie-woogie with waltz. John Lee Hooker took the Boogie-woogie style over to guitar from piano, creating the Boogie song "Boogie Chillen".
Beginning in the 1970s, and continuing to this day, artists such as George Frayne (Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen), keep (mostly) traditional boogie style alive with songs such as "Rock That Boogie", "Too Much Fun", "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar", and others. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century Jools Holland has been instrumental in keeping the boogie-woogie tradition alive. Also, multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee experimented with boogie-woogie in his 2006 soundtrack for the game Bully, in the song "Fighting Johnny Vincent".