11 - June 16, 1865—“Juneteenth”—A Turning Point in the Development of Boogie Woogie

by John Tennison — History 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.”49 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.

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© 2004-2008 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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