Boogie Woogie

NOTE: The following material contains historical quotes from a period in our country's history when the term "Negro" was an accepted reference to African Americans and is not intended in this situation to be derogatory in any way.

Not everyone listens to "pure" or "traditional" Boogie Woogie all the time, but perhaps without realizing it we are often listening to music that has been influenced by and includes elements of Boogie Woogie. Even so, it is hard to find anyone who doesn't like Boogie Woogie, traditional or otherwise. Smiles happen, hands pat, and feet start moving for most people no matter what their background when the Boogie Woogie starts to play. Like few other genres , Boogie Woogie seems to touch humans almost universally. Evidence clearly links it to African traditions. Wilfrid Mellers notes "Barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, and jazz all originate to some degree in the religio-sexual customs of primitive African societies...one of the meanings of the phrase 'boogie-woogie' and of the word 'jazz' itself, is sexual intercourse, even as the ritualistic-orgiastic nature of the music also represents an ecstatic form of a spiritual order." According to many experts, boogie woogie is rooted in the most ancient human traditions. While these traditions traveled with and influenced humans all over the world, they had a more direct path to developing into a distinct musical genre in our area for two reasons:

1. The number of recently freed slaves working on the railroads in the area.
2. The availability of the piano, which was supplied by the railroads to these isolated camps because they were hard to steal and helped keep the workers occupied and in camp during off hours.


Typical "Barrelhouse" where it all began.

"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." (Texan Jazz, page 75) -- Dave Oliphant

In "Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture," William Barlow writes in Chapter 7, page 231:

"Piano players were the first blues musicians associated with the Deep Ellum tenderloin. In Dallas, Houston, and other cities of Eastern Texas, the prevailing piano style of uptempo blues numbers was called "Fast Western" or "Fast Texas." Fast Western or Fast Texas were the original terms for boogie woogie.

Born in Freedom

Before the Civil War was over, slave labor was used in Texas for construction of railroad tracks. June 19, 1865 is known as "Juneteenth" in Texas because it is the date that "Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free." According to Dr. Tennison, June 19, 1865 was a significant transitional date when African Americans in Texas learned of their new freedoms and had the potential to make dramatic changes in four areas:

1. Expressing Freedom of travel
2. Engaging in musical expression and experimentation
3. Communicating musical ideas with each other
4. Greater access to pianos and other items of previously limited availability

Thus, the development of Boogie Woogie could proceed at a significantly faster rate after June 19, 1865.

In 1995, Francis Davis wrote the following in "The History of the Blues" (page 151):
"Somewhere along the way -- no one knows for sure exactly when -- barrelhouse forked into boogie-woogie, an urban style characterized by eight insistent beats to the measure in the bass, and right-hand melodies that were essentially rhythmic variations on this bass line."

Lee Ree Sullivan of Texarkana told Dr. John Tennison in 1986 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 formed on February 16, 1852. Although the "Texas Western" Railroad Company changed its name to "Southern Pacific," Sullivan said the name "Texas Western" stuck among the slaves who were used to construct the first railway hub in northeast Texas. The Texas-based Southern Pacific Railroad was bought out by the newly-formed Texas and Pacific Railroad on March 21, 1872. While elements of boogie woogie may be found going back centuries, our focus will largely be limited to events after June 19, 1865.

Born in Marshall

Some may question that Marshall and environs are the birthplace of boogie woogie, but the RMHC challenges them to prove otherwise. Dr. John Tennison's work in pulling together the evidence to prove this is unrivalled by any other musicologist. In fact, it can be said that his work played a major roll in the decision to establish the Regional Music Heritage Center.

The evidence is largely based on the railroads and the African American workers who built them. While not a complicated connection it requires a lot of reading to piece it all together as is evidenced by the Boogie Woogie Foundation web sites mass of material that Dr. Tennison plans to use to write the book on the history of boogie woogie. The RMHC encourages those who want more detail to visit that website and Boogie Woogie Marshall as well.

For the purposes of this site, we will summarize the main points. First, there are the credible witnesses:

"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." -- 1983, Rosetta Reitz

"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."1 -- E. Simms Campbell, 1939, pages 112-113, (in Chapter 4 "Blues") in the book, "Jazzmen: The Story of Hot Jazz Told in the Lives of the Men Who Created It"

In his annotation to the reprint of the 1923 sheet music of George W. Thomas, Jr.'s "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," (first published in 1916 by George W. Thomas) Clarence Williams states:

"The 'Boogie Woogie' originated in Texas many years ago. It wasn't called the 'Boogie Woogie' then. George Thomas was the fellow who used this style and first wrote it down."

"Huddie Leadbetter said he first heard it in 1899 in Caddo County, Texas (NOTE: This is definitely an error, but we don't know whether Huddie meant the Caddo Lake area in Harrison County, TX, or Caddo Parish, LA), and Bunk Johnson apparently first encountered it in the lumber camps of western Louisiana."

These are only a few of the witnesses to the origin of Boogie Woogie.

Spread by the Railroad

Additional support also comes from the research of Dr. John Tennison. His evidence collected indicates that Boogie Woogie bass figures in use in the Arklatex in the 1870s became more complex as a function of radial movement away from the Marshall, Texas area.

Very early, boogie woogie is reported in Marshall, Texarkana and Shreveport. These cities contribute names to basic boogie woogie bass lines, the "Marshall", the "Swampoodle" and the "Shreveport."

From our region, the influence of boogie woogie spread outward and boogie woogie began to influence popular music eventually leading to emergence of rock n' roll.

From this, one can see that boogie woogie is the most important and influential single American genre of music.

Spread to the World

Boogie Woogie has been rightfully called the "Father of Rock and Roll."

Dr. John Tennison writes, "Indeed, the influence of boogie woogie on rock n' roll and popular music worldwide is greater than that of blues in general. Put another way, boogie boogie can be regarded as the kind of blues that has had the most influence on popular music throughout the world." The continuing influence of Boogie Woogie on popular music in general is undeniable. Boogie woogie continues to be performed as a form of jazz, and has influenced classical composers throughout the world, including our region's Conlon Nancarrow and others world wide. In a powerfully-worded testament of the demonstrated capacity and potential of Boogie Woogie to influence classical composers, Gyorgy Ligeti wrote the following on June 28, 1980: "If J. S. Bach had grown up with blues, boogie-woogie, and Latin-American music instead of the protestant choral, he would have composed like Nancarrow, i.e. Nancarrow is the synthesis of American tradition, polyphony of Bach and elegance of Stravinsky, but even much more: he is the best composer of the second half of this century." Since then, Nancarrow's fame has grown and continues to grow world wide.

Dr. Tennison has noted, "Boogie woogie has also influenced cultures throughout the world in ways that are not directly related to musical expression. For example, the visual art of Piet Mondrian was profoundly influenced by the sound and other qualities of Boogie Woogie music. Mondrian stated, "True Boogie Woogie I conceive as homogenous in intention with mine in painting." Moreover, boogie woogie has had a substantial influence on the languages of various cultures, as exemplified by widespread use of "Boogie" and "Boogie Woogie" as marketing terms for various products and in contexts that frequently do not denote music, and which bear little relationship to the earliest meanings of the terms "Boogie" or "Boogie Woogie."

One of the primary goals of the Regional Music Heritage Center is to educate the public as to the true extent of the influence of boogie woogie in American and world music heritage. We will support and showcase the work of RMHC Advisory Group members Dr. John Tennison, Ezra Charles, and others to honor those African Americans who created boogie woogie in times when it was easy for others to take credit for work they did not do.

On page 183 of the classic 1939 book, Jazzmen, William Russell concluded his chapter on boogie woogie with the following statement: "Although the Boogie Woogie was originally dance music, it transcends any secondary function as mere accompaniment to words or movement and today has come to be recognized in its own right."

Boogie Woogie - Listen to the Music

This section will consists of a wide variety of boogie woogie, derivatives, and closely related genre recommended by Dr. John Tennison. It's by no means comprehensive but will supply a good overview of the extents of boogie woogie's influence on world musical culture.

1917 - Charleston Rag

1917 piano roll of Eubie Blake's "Charleston Rag." While not true boogie woogie, a relationship is clear.

Cow Cow Blues

Davenport spent time in Texas and based his "Cow Cow Blues" on music that he had heard being played in Texas.

c.1910 - New Orleans Hop Scot Blues

George Thomas composition of c. 1910 that Sippie Wallace credited to influences Thomas heard in East Texas.

Chicago Stomps

1924 recording of Jimmy Blythe's "Chicago Stomps." By the 1920's boogie woogie had become dominant in Chicago.

The Rocks

Likely Arkansas born, raised in Pine Bluff and Houston, George Thomas piece with "Jefferson" bass line.

Rocket 88

Early rock n' roll's roots in boogie woogie are clear in Bill Haley's 1951 "Rocket 88" with the Marshall bass line.

Study No. 3(e)

Conlon Nancarrow's early piece that is mostly boogie woogie.

Yancey Special

A 1938 Jimmy Yancey piece featuring the "Shreveport" boogie woogie bass line.

From Eight Concert Etudes

A classical composer, Nikolai Kapustin, uses boogie woogie in this piece from his Eight Concert Etudes (1984)

Linus and Lucy

Vince Guaraldi's composition used as the theme music for several Charlie Brown specials with boogie woogie influence.

Fat Girl Boogie

By the great Texarkana bluesman Peppermint Harris, (1925-1999)

Flying Crow Blues

The Flying Crow was a train from Port Arthur to Kansas City through Shreveport and Texarkana. Composer Black Ivory King was from Shreveport.

Texas and Pacific Boogie

Boogie woogie is very popular in Europe. Jean-Paul Amouroux is a contemporary French artist and composer.

Highway Hymn Blues

Early (1972) piece by the "Father of New Age Music" George Winston.

Peter Gunn Theme

1959 piece written as theme for "Peter Gunn," a popular TV detective show of the times.

Johnny B. Goode

1958 song that vaulted the great Chuck Berry to the top.

All Shook Up

Elvis Presley early tune with a pure boogie woogie basis. Demonstrates boogie woogie as "The father of rock n' roll."

Lady Madonna

Late Beatles hit (1968) with boogie woogie foundation.

The Rattler

The Birthplace of Boogie Woogie's own legend, Omar Shariff, plays his composition "The Rattler."

Good Golly Miss Molly

Listed on Rolling Stone's greatest songs, Little Richard tune from 1956 has a strong boogie woogie presence.

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