I came across this information a little over a week ago. Following links and reading about the history of this unique musical style has consumed hours of my time. Not only am I fascinated with the extensive research into the history of Boogie Woogie, but it has been an education about the history of the town and region of Texas where I grew up.
Born in the pine tree logging camps near my hometown before the War Between The States, a small narrow gauge rail line existed between Caddo Lake and Marshall(about fifteen miles), which did not connect to any other major rail lines. At about the time of the War, that track was removed and helped to connect Marshall(a major city in the state and Confederacy) to Shreveport, La., only thirty five miles to the East. After the War, Marshall became a major railroad hub and Boogie Woogie was then free to travel the globe…which it has done.
The extensive research for this official designation came from one Dr. John Tennison of the Boogie Woogie Foundation. I didn’t fully understand what a tremendous impact Boogie Woogie has had on the music world, until I read through the vast amount of information on that site, including the wealth of links.
You owe it to yourself to read as much as you can, for it truly is a work of love.
From Dr. Tennison’s History Of Boogie Woogie, which is voluminous, a better understanding of the background of this musical form:
June 16, 1865 — “Juneteenth” — A Turning Point in the Development of Boogie Woogie
My inquiry into the “origin” of Boogie Woogie within the United States will focus mainly on evidence of when West African percussive ostinato styles and improvised percussive lead parts came to be applied to pianos in the United States. I make several assumptions that I hope are true. First, I assume that slaves had limited access to pianos prior to the end of the Civil War. In general, musical activities of slaves were limited, as these activities were believed by plantation owners to be capable of inciting riots and rebellions. Thus, prior to the civil war, most slave owners would have limited intentional access by slaves to the luxury and high technology of pianos. However, there are almost certainly exceptions to this assumption. Indeed, in these exceptions could lie the origins of Boogie Woogie.
Moreover, even before the Civil War was over, slave labor was used in Texas for construction of railroad tracks. Thus, the sounds of steam locomotives could have served as musical inspiration even before African Americans had easy access to pianos.
Nonetheless, most of my inquiry into the origin of Boogie Woogie will be concerned with events that followed the Civil War. Since a preponderance of evidence points towards a Texas origin for Boogie Woogie, I will focus largely on events following June 19, 1865. This date 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.” Consequently, this date would have been a significant transitional date at which time African Americans in Texas gained knowledge of their new freedoms and, thus, 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. Accessing previously unavailable or forbidden items, such as pianos
Thus, the development of Boogie Woogie could proceed at a significant faster rate after June 19, 1865.
Other events prior to June 19, 1865 that were relevant to the development of Boogie Woogie were the sounds of steam locomotives. These sounds would have been heard by slaves working on railroad construction. Moreover, slave owners would not have been able or desirous of censoring slaves from hearing these sounds. Moreover, these sounds would have occurred where tracks were being built and where steam locomotives were running.
In summary, the “origins” of Boogie Woogie that I will consider most will be those events that occurred from June 19, 1865 to 1900. Although Boogie Woogie continued to develop and evolve after 1900, various pieces of evidence, such as Lead Belly’s account of piano walking bass lines in 1899, have resulted in my tendency to refer to Boogie Woogie events prior to 1900 as “origin” events, while referring to events after 1900 as “developmental” events. I recognize that such a division is arbitrary, as the development of Boogie Woogie, like most things in our macroscopic world, is continuous and has no naturally-identifiable boundaries between historical eras. That is, the eras are all in our minds and only serve as convenient ways to divide time so as to create a nomenclature to have meaningful verbal communication with each other.
Boogie Woogie has also had several names over the years:
Barrelhouse – refers to the locations where much of early Boogie Woogie evolved.
Boogie – Sometimes uses as a contraction or synonym of “Boogie Woogie.” However, sometimes used to refer to guitar renditions of a Boogie Woogie walking bass or a Boogie Woogie pulse, especially as was developed in Rockabilly and “Hillbilly” derivatives of Boogie Woogie.
Blues Piano – can refer to the fact that some Boogie Woogies use a 12-bar or other common cyclical harmonic progression used in blues music.
Country Blues (Piano) — Sometimes used as a contrast to urban blues, such as those with the Harlem Stride oom-pah bass lines.
Honky Tonk – suggests a location and the sound of a train, as in “Honky Tonk Train”
Ragtime – can refer to the syncopation (i.e. the “ragged time”) used in Boogie Woogie and Ragtime. Yet, Boogie Woogie usually does not have a oom-pah left hand as its predominant bass figure as Ragtime typically does.
Walking Bass – What Sammy Price said Boogie Woogie was called in Texas while, at the same time, being called “booga-rooga” by Blind Lemon Jefferson (This usage pre-dated the recording of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.”)
Stride – as opposed to “Walk,” refers to a relatively greater width between successive left hand notes and/or chords. Put another way, “Walking” basses and “Stride” basses are on the same continuum, with “Striding” being at one end and “Walking” being at the other end.
Swing – Many Boogie Woogies have a swing (A.K.A. shuffled) feel to them, yet “Swing” also often refers to a sort of high-brow, urbanized, orchestrated, ensemble music that often lacks the ferocity of raw Boogie Woogie.
Jazz – Jazz is the most non-specific of all terms used to refer to Boogie Woogie. (See section bellow titled, “Is Boogie Woogie Jazz?”) For the four reasons listed below, Boogie Woogie is Jazz, but so are a lot of other styles of music! Thus, calling Boogie Woogie “Jazz” is true, but not very specific.
Rock and Roll Piano – Think Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard! What they played was essentially Boogie Woogie with the addition of vocals, guitars, and drums.
Rockabilly – Sometimes used to describe the use of a Boogie Woogie beats, pulses, bass lines (often adapted to guitar) in country music that emerged in the 1940s and that (in addition to the direct influence of piano-based Boogie Woogie) influenced such artists as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, both of whom consider their own music to be a form of Boogie Woogie.
Hillbilly — Sometimes used interchangeably with “Rockabilly” Moon Mullican (AKA “King of the Hillbilly Pianists” is an example of a white performer who played Boogie Woogie, influenced Jerry Lee Lewis, and brought Boogie Woogie to the Nashville country music scene.
8-to-the-Bar – Refers to the number of pulses per measure, although not all Boogie Woogie is 8-to-the-bar. 8-to-the-bar is in contrast to Ragtime’s 2-to-the-bar (AKA oom-pah).
Sixteen – term used by Eubie Blake to refer to 16 notes in the left hand for every 4 in the right.
Fast Western — as described by E. Simms Campbell in 1939. (According to Lee Ree Sullivan of Texarkana, both “Fast Western” and “Fast Texas” derived from the “Texas Western Railroad,” a precursor to what later became the Texas & Pacific Railroad. “Pete Johnson who grew up in Kansas City said they called it ‘western rolling blues.'”
Fast Texas — usually used interchangeably with “Fast Western.”
Fast Blues — as described by E. Simms Campbell in 1939, as contrasted with the “Slow Blues” of New Orleans.
Galveston Blues – In 1966, Victoria Spivey indicates that what had been called “The Galveston Blues” was “now called the ‘Boogie Woogie.'”
After this research was discovered, my hometown took the opportunity to make a formal declaration of its being the official birthplace of Boogie Woogie. In celebration of this designation and the potential for a tourist attraction, a son of Marshall was found and returned for a performance of Boogie Woogie. Now known as Omar Sharriff, he was born and raised in Marshall as Dave Elam, the son of a Boogie Woogie player, then changed again to Dave Alexander. He moved to the West Coast and became known as one of the best Boogie Woogie and Blues piano players in the area and performed with some of the musical legends of the twentieth century, such as Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.
After the death of Floyd Dixon in 2006, Omar Sharriff became the last living link to the Boogie Woogie players who originated this style of music in the East Texas logging camps and railroad yards. His return was a homecoming and a celebration of Marshall’s musical heritage.
I know several people who attended this homecoming event and they said it was a wonderful experience for those on stage and in the audience. The local newspaper had a nice piece on the event, ‘Eight To The Bar’.
I will conclude first with a short video of the event where Mr. Sharriff played and another video of Dr. John Tennison playing at a separate event prior to the concert.
I would also like to add that the designation of a city as the birthplace of an old musical style is practically unheard of, yet in this instance, with the extensive research into historical accounts, is well deserved.
From The Marshall News Messenger:
Marshall is proclaimed ‘birthplace’ of boogie woogie