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.
“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.
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.
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.”
The best known ostinato bass figure in Boogie Woogie is the Swampoodle bass line from the Swampoodle district in Texarkana. John Tennison composed this piece, “Swampoodle Player,” for RMHC and we set the sounds of a Texas & Pacific steam locomotive to it to illustrate the connection of Boogie Woogie to the sounds of steam.
These are only a few of the witnesses to the origin of Boogie Woogie.
1917 Piano Roll performed by Eubie Blake, “The Charleston Rag”
“The Rocks” -February-1923-Jefferson Bass Figure-both-swung & non-swung-bass-figures
“Boogie Woogie Bugle-Boy” 1941
“Eight Concert Etudes”-1984 Railery-Shuitka
“Good Golly Miss Molly”-recorded 10-15-1956
“Fat Girl Boogie” 1951 Peppermint Harris from Texarkana
Peanuts theme “Linus & Lucy introduced on a jazz album composed by Vince Guaraldi in 1964
Texarkana composer Conlon Nancarrow’s “Study 3e” Boogie Woogie Suite-1948.
Marshall artist/composer Omar Sharriff’s “The Rattler” 1972
“Texas & Pacific Boogie”
“The-Flying-Crow” KCS Railroad Mentions Texarkana & Ashdown. Recorded-in-1937
1917 Piano Roll performed by Eubie Blake, “The Charleston Rag”
“Cow-Cow Blues” from Piano Roll
“Highway Hymn” Blues-1972
“Peter Gunn” TV detective show theme, recorded March-1959.
Elvis Presley “All Shook Up” recorded-1-12-1957 Hoxie bass line
Chuck Berry “Johnny B. Goode” recorded-1-6-1957
Beatles “Lady Madonna recorded Feb. 3-6-1968
New Orleans “Hop-Scop” Blues-1923
“Chicago Stomps” Chicago, April-1924