13 - The Sacred & Profane: Boogie Woogie, Jazz, Sex, Trance, Spirituality, & Existentialism
by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie
Historians must decide the arbitrary starting date at which they want to start making their historical inquiries and analysis. That is, every effect has its cause, which is the effect of a still earlier cause. With regard to the “origin” of Boogie Woogie, I could easily say that Boogie Woogie had its origins in West African ostinato percussive traditions underlying improvised lead percussive parts. Moreover, these traditions existed prior to the slave trade to the Americas. In turn, these percussive traditions had their origins (causes) in still earlier facts of human biology. That is, improvised lead parts played on top of an ostinato substrate resonated with primitive humans for reasons that are almost certainly intrinsic to our evolutionary and sexual biology.
Ostinato (a repeating musical pattern, such as a melody and/or rhythm) probably had its first, primitive appeal because it sounded like three things:
1. A heartbeat
3. The in-and-out or back-and-forth movement of sexual intercourse
Accelerating ostinato probably had its first, primitive appeal because all three of the factors above accelerate during sexual intercourse.
Improvised lead percussive parts probably had their first, primitive appeal because such parts sounded like the randomness, unpredictability, surprise, delight, and loss of control during orgasm and ejaculation.
In the book, Texan Jazz13, Chapter 4, titled, “Boogie Woogie,” page 75, author Dave Oliphant writes, “Barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, and jazz all originate to some degree in the religio-sexual customs of primitive African societies, for Wilfrid Mellers (page 273)14 notes, 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.” A quotation of the complete paragraph in the Mellers chapter cited by Oliphant reveals one of the most eloquent descriptions of the relatedness between Boogie Woogie and sexuality that I have read. In his 1964 book, “Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music14,” in the chapter, “Orgy and alienation: country blues, barrelhouse piano, and piano rag,” Wilfrid Mellers writes on pages 273-274:
“Not surprisingly, considering where it was played, barrelhouse piano is an extremely sexy music in which the incessant beat and thrust of the boogie rhythm become synonymous with male potency. However confused and confusing its etymology may be, there is no doubt that one of the meanings of the phrase boogie-woogie, as of the word jazz itself, is sexual intercourse; and what happens in the music is both descriptive and aphrodisiac. Thus the obsessively repeated rhythmic figurations of the “riff” phrase adapt a primitive orgiastic technique to the bar-parlour: while both the repetitions and the perpetual cross-rhythms of the right hand brace the body and the nerves against the forward thrust. The deeper implications of the act of coition come in, too, because in the relationship between the two voices or rather hands there is both a duality of tension, and also a desperate desire for unity which would, of its nature, destroy the forward momentum, make Time stop. From this point of view the significance of the break is interesting. Technically, it is simply a rest for the pianist’s hard-stomping left hand; but it becomes, in the explosion of its cross-rhythms, literally a break in Time – a kind of seizure within the music’s momentum. In this sense its effect is like an orgasm: though it is never finally resolutory. The piano blues is a communal act in that it is meant to be performed in public places; but the orgasm into which the listeners, along with the pianist, are “sent” remains as private, if elemental, as it would be when enacted in the room upstairs.”14
and (page 274):
“Boogie-woogie is a sensual celebration, too: but its creators, far from being lords of the earth, had nothing to celebrate but their own animal vigour.”14
Wilfrid Mellers also writes (page 276):
“The Negro’s obsession with the railroad has become a twentieth-century myth. The railway train—powerful at the head, snake-like in elongation—is probably a phallic image; and the railway also opened up and ravished the American wilderness. Although it represented an endless series of departures, there was always the hope that one might arrive somewhere wonderful at the end. The Negro himself worked on the railroad, and rode on it legitimately or as hobo; in any case he was a traveler moved on by economic necessity, living in the mere fact of motion because he had little else to live for. In Honky Tonk Train Blues the thrust of the chunky left-hand triads generates an immense momentum, which is enhanced by the right hand’s fantastically complex (though of course intuitive) cross-rhythms. The interlocked energy of the rhythms is vigorously sexual; but again the orgasm is incomplete. We cannot conceive of motion except in relation to passion, feeling, growth; here, we are “sent” by the rhythm into a state of trance because we experience it without reference to melody or even harmony—for the note-clusters are, for the most part, percussive dissonances. For this reason, the motion itself becomes a kind of immobility; and the piece ends, through inanition, in the same way as Indiana Avenue Stomp. The train chuffs to stillness, just as the pendulum of the stomp’s clock surrenders motion. This is indicated in the conventional fade-out on the flat seventh. Barrelhouse blues hardly ever end in tonic resolution, and Jimmy Yancey, what key he was playing in, tended to doodle out on the flat seventh of E flat. He was still traveling, never really at journey’s end.”14
The accelerating chugging sound of a steam locomotive is an ecstatic, orgasmic sound that naturally resembles the human sexual excitation cycle as described by researchers Masters and Johnson. The chugging sound resembles the sound of human breathing and of perspiring bodies slapping together. After the steam locomotive is fully accelerated, the blowing of its whistle is analogous to the human orgasm. The slowing down of the steam locomotive as it pulls into the station is analogous to the slowing in breathing and refractory period between human sexual orgasms. A train wreck or boiler explosion is analogous to having a heart attack and orgasm at the same time, following by immediate death, as tragically happens from time to time.
When speaking of Boogie Woogie as played in the late 1920s, music historian Giles Oakley wrote in his book, “The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues:”24
“Both the music and the word boogie had been around for years; brothels were called boogie houses, and to ‘pitch a boogie’ could mean to throw a party, or something more sexual, but it was the 1928 recording of Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie by Pine Top Smith which pinned the name to this rough, driving piano style.”24
Texas Boogie Woogie pianist, Robert Shaw, said the following in 1963 in the liner notes to his “Texas Barrelhouse Piano” album (Previously released on Mack McCormick’s Almanac label):
“When you listen to what I’m playing, you got to see in your mind all them gals out there swinging their butts and getting the mens excited. Otherwise you ain’t got the music rightly understood. I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything. I told them when to shake it, and when to hold it back. That’s what this music is for.“46
The fact that Ragtime and Boogie Woogie were the soundtracks of brothels is evidence of their role in representing, accompanying, and evoking sexual feelings and behaviors. In contrast, highly-orchestrated, urban incarnations of Boogie Woogie are often sterile and deny Boogie Woogie’s origins in raw sexual drives, feelings, and behaviors. Pure, raw, Boogie Woogie performed with its greatest degree of virtuosity always remains sexually aware. To not have this awareness or lose touch with one’s own sexuality during the performance results in a less intense, less virtuosic, and less musically pleasing performance.
Occasionally, I will hear a music critic suggest that discussing the sexual relatedness of Boogie Woogie is an attempt to de-legitimize the musicality of Boogie Woogie. Such criticism usually comes from someone who is uncomfortable with or who has a fear of public discussions of sexuality. That is, someone’s negative attitude towards sexuality, NOT sexuality itself, creates the mis-perception that sexuality de-legitimizes music. In this instance, fear, not sexuality, is the de-legitimizing factor. I would argue instead that relatedness to sexuality (whether or not it is conscious) legitimizes, empowers, and builds a unassailable foundation for Boogie Woogie.
In contrast, the decrease in creativity and dis-empowering effects of de-emphasizing sexuality is conveyed by the words of Sigmund Freud, who wrote:
“My impression is that sexual abstinence does not promote the development of energetic, independent men of action, original thinkers or bold innovators and reformers; far more frequently it develops well-behaved weaklings who are subsequently lost in the great multitude.”
Moreover, along with the “profane,” the “sacred” is always present. Revealing the inseperable connectedness between the “profanity” and the “sacredness” of Boogie Woogie demonstrates its universality and consequently, increases its legitimacy.
A poignant example of Boogie Woogie’s dual role in a “sacred” and “profane” environments comes from T-Bone Walker, the first well-known electric blues guitarist. Walker was born in northeast Texas in Linden, in the same far northeast region of Texas as Scott Joplin. Walker’s influence on later artists, such as B. B. King, is profound and obvious. In fact, much of what is called B. B. King’s “Delta Blues” comes from East Texas. Listening to the early recordings of T-Bone Walker will leave no doubts to this claim.
In 1913, Walker heard Boogie Woogie being played in his church in Dallas. So, clearly, not all churches considered Boogie Woogie to be evil or “the Devil’s music.” Although T-Bone was a guitar player, Boogie Woogie’s influence can be heard in much of his music, as can be heard in his “Hypin’ Women Blues,” which incorporates prominent Boogie Woogie piano, and “profane” lyrics about streets filled with women looking for romance.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website quotes Mahalia Jackson, who said, “Rock and roll was stolen out of the sanctified church!” What was stolen was not so much the Gospel lyrics, but rather, the intensity of Boogie Woogie and other forms of music performed in African American churches. Indeed, the only significant differences between some African American Gospel music and secular African American Blues Music are the lyrics and the behaviors encouraged or associated with each genre of music. The quality and intensity of the emotions felt during each genre of music are often indistinguishable, demonstrating once again an inseparable connection between the sacred and the profane. Thus, although Boogie Woogie might not have always occurred in the context of a specific belief system of an organized religion, Boogie Woogie does provide what scholars, such as William James, have called “religious experiences.“48
Besides Boogie Woogie’s and Jazz’s inextricable sexual and spiritual relatedness, these styles of music are also intimately related to American existentialism. This connection was passionately conveyed in the writings of Normal Mailer. In the book, “Existentialism,”3 Editor Robert C. Solomon in 1974 (University of Texas) wrote:
“In a long series of brilliant and discomforting novels and essays Norman Mailer has given us the first explicit formulation of what might well be called American existentialism. This is not to say that it has held an appropriate position in American intellectual life. But given the difference between the role of the intellect in French and American life, it is not surprising that American existential should find its home in jazz and in the streets, Whether or not we consider it worthwhile to attempt a comparison between Mailer’s existentialism and the philosophical theses we have presented, it is undeniable that Mailer’s writings offer us the best American expression of the existential attitude we have to date.”3
In his 1957 essay, “The White Negro,“4 Mailer writes:
“Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For Jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, ‘I feel this, and now you do too.’”4
(Note: In 1957, Mailer’s use of the word, “Negro,” was not considered a racial epithet or in any way meant to be derogatory. If he were writing the essay in 2004, he very well might have substituted the expression “African American” for the word “Negro.”)