10 - How Old Is Boogie Woogie?

by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie

In 1987, Martin Williams noted that “no one knows how old” Boogie Woogie is (page50).38

In 1995, Francis Davis wrote the following in “The History of the Blues” (page 151)7:


“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.”


With regard to the Boogie Woogie elements present in Pine Top Smith’s “Boogie Woogie,” in 1963, musical historian, Mack McCormick wrote:


“The term ‘Fast Western’ is unknown among Texas pianists.  Moreover, they identify boogie woogie with the 1929 Pine Top smith record.  They are, however, quick to point out that the elements Smith used had been common for decades.”


This account is consistent with Sammy Price’s account40, which indicates that Blind Lemon Jefferson was playing Boogie Woogie bass figures on his guitar (which Jefferson called “booga rooga”) before Pine Top Smith made his piano recordings.

However, despite Mack McCormick’s learning that Robert Shaw was not familiar with the term, “Fast Western,“66 Lee Ree Sullivan of Texarkana told me 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, 1952), but which did not build track until after later changing its name to “Southern Pacific” on August 16, 1856.  This Texas-based “Southern Pacific” was the first “Southern Pacific” railroad, and was in no way connected to the more well known “Southern Pacific” originating in San Francisco, California.  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.

According to Sullivan, slaves had access to pianos on Sundays in some churches after the earlier morning services of white church-goers were completed.  Sullivan said that, as far as he knew, prior to the Civil War, Sunday was the only day of the week on which slaves formally congregated at churches to play piano music in northeast Texas.68 Had such meetings not been in the context of practicing religion, antebellum access to pianos by slaves in northeast Texas would have probably been more limited.  However, some slave narratives indicate informal access to pianos in non-scheduled contexts, such as in the homes of slaves owners.

The historical account of Clarence Williams indicates that George W. Thomas, Jr. was among the first, if not the first, to bring the musical elements of barrelhouses to urban performance.  Williams noted that Thomas was playing “Hop Scop Blues” (later “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues”)  in Houston in 1911.  George Thomas, Jr. was among the first to publish a Boogie Woogie broken-octave walking bass figure used in barrelhouses into written musical form in 1916.  However, “The Weary Blues” by Artie Matthews (published in 1915) uses a Boogie Woogie broken-octave walking bass figure as well.  So when Clarence Williams claims that “George Thomas was the fellow who used this style and first wrote it down,“63 it appears that having “wrote it down” does not refer to publishing, but rather having transcribed a Boogie Woogie broken-octave bass line.

Moreover, the Boogie Woogie broken-octave walking bass figure in Matthew’s “The Weary Blues,” is the same bass figure that Paul Oliver and others have identified as “The Cows” and as having originated in Texas.“5 The bass figure known as “the cows” is a classic broken-octave Boogie Woogie walking-bass figure and can be heard in unison-octave form in the Cow Cow Davenport’s “Cow Cow Blues” and in the open of Fats Waller’s “Alligator Crawl.”  Although Waller was not known or playing or liking Boogie Woogie, he inserts “the cows” bass figure at 3 other places in “Alligator Crawl” besides the introduction.

In his book, “Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History,“71 Edward A. Berlin has suggested that Blind Boone’s 1909 “Southern Rag Medley 2"72 used a Boogie Woogie bass line in its “Alabama Bound” section.  However, analysis of Boone’s original sheet music, and analysis of Boone’s 1912 piano roll performance of his “Southern Rag Medley 2,” reveals that Boone’s Alabama-bound bass line does not rise to the level of being a “Boogie Woogie” bass line.  Specifically, Boone maintains a “duple-meter,” “oom-pah” feel with his Alabama-bound broken-octave, bass line.  Despite being “broken octaves” that “walk,” Boone’s broken octaves do not create a sense of ostinato, and his broken-octave bass notes remain harmonically subservient to the harmonic demands of the right hand, rather than achieve Boogie Woogie’s sense of melodic and contrapuntal independence from the right hand part.  Still, Boone’s “Southern Rag Medley 2” is important in that this piece represents one of the earliest transcriptions of a transitional form suggestive of both Ragtime and Boogie Woogie.  Moreover, in 1908 (the year prior to the publication of “Southern Rag Medley 2”), Scott Joplin used a broken octave bass line his “Pine Apple Rag.”  Yet, like Boone, Joplin’s broken-octave bass line in “Pine Apple Rag” maintained a 2-4 “duple-meter,” “2-to-the-bar,” oom-pah feel, that was not independent, but rather, was harmonically constrained by the right hand part.  Moreover, like “Pine Apple Rag,” and “Southern Rag Medley 2”, Artie Matthews’s “Pastime Rag No. 1” (published in 1913) (See discussion below on different types of broken-octave bass lines.)  also maintains a 2-4 “duple-meter,” “2-to-the-bar,” oom-pah feel, that is not independent, but rather, is harmonically constrained by the right hand part.  Also, Matthews “broken-octaves” in “Pastime Rag No. 1” are grace-noted, the sort of “reverse-boogie” bass line that Eubie Blake uses in the 1917 piano roll recording of his “Charleston Rag.”  Not until Artie Matthews’ 1915 publication of “The Weary Blues” do we have what rises to the level of having a “Boogie Woogie” broken-octave bass line, but with no inherent swing pulse.  Yet, like George Thomas’s “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” the Boogie Woogie bass line of “The Weary Blues” is only present during part of the piece.  Not until Jimmy Blythe’s “Chicago Stomp” is there an example of (with the exception of the 4-measure introduction) a piece of music containing a Boogie Woogie bass line from beginning to end.

When Francis Davis says that “barrelhouse forked into boogie-woogie,“7 the word “forked” implies that some stylistic change might have occurred at the time of the “fork.”  However, no one to my knowledge has ever identified any specific stylistic elements that changed at a time of “forking.”  Thus, a more precise statement would have been to say that the music developed in the barrelhouses came later to be called Boogie Woogie when played in more urban environments.  Moreover, despite Davis’ description, not all Boogie Woogie is 8-to-the-bar, and right-hand parts of Boogie Woogie are not necessarily rhythmic variations of the bass line.

Even though the preponderance of evidence is consistent with a Texas geographical origin for Boogie Woogie, historians do not have enough evidence to pin down the date of a first occurrence of what could be called Boogie Woogie.  However, besides McCormick’s research indicated that Boogie Woogie elements used by Pine Top Smith “had been common for decades"66 before 1929, Sharon Pease (in Down Beat Magazine) (circa 1940, exact reference forthcoming) discovered that even the oldest living African Americans that he surveyed had heard Boogie Woogie being performed for as long as they could remember.  Thus, it would be possible to derive a range of time by counting backwards from the ages of all known living African Americans who were alive circa 1940.  Such a calculation suggests that Boogie Woogie elements might have been present prior to the Civil War.  If so, these primitive Boogie Woogie performances would have probably had the most pure relationship to West African ostinato drumming as compared to Boogie Woogies that came later.

Given that Lead Belly witnessed Boogie Woogie in 1899; and given the North to South migration of the Thomas family; and given the Texas & Pacific headquarter in Marshal; and given the huge slave population in Harrison County; 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 seems plausible that Boogie Woogie spread from Northeast to Southeast Texas, rather than developing diffusely with an even density over all of the piney woods of East Texas.  If so, early evidence of Boogie Woogie performances could be buried (metaphorically or literally) in Northeast Texas.

© 2004-2008 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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