18 - Five Meanings of “The Fives”

by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie

On page 17 of the February 19, 1959 issue of Down Beat, Meade Lux Lewis described “The Fives” as something that was done with the right hand, rather than the left.  Moreover, in 1959, Lewis has trouble remembering the name of the piano player who played “The Fives” for him and Ammons.  However, the article indicates the Lewis believed in 1959 that this pianist had been from St. Louis.  The article states:

“Lewis considers that the primary reason for his shifting allegiance to piano [from violin] was the emergence on the Chicago scene of a pianist from St. Louis, Mo., whose name he cannot remember.“55

This account by Lewis indicates that this person who emerged on the Chicago scene by playing “The Fives” was not Jimmy Yancey, as Yancey was from Chicago, not St. Louis.  Moreover, Lewis had named his “Yancey Special” after Jimmy Yancey.  Thus, to imagine that Lewis would have been unable to recall Yancey’s name is hard to believe.  Hersal Thomas’ death by poisoning back in 1926 would have been consistent with Hersal’s later obscurity and thus the difficulty that Lewis had in remembering Hersal’s name.  Still, the fact that Lewis though the pianist who played “The Fives” was from St. Louis begs explanation.  There are several possible explanations.  First, Lewis might have mistakenly thought that Hersal was “from” St. Louis.  Hersal almost certainly travelled through St. Louis on his way to Chicago, thus, in this sense, would have indeed been “from” St. Louis.  This line of thought, taken along with Ammons’ claim that Hersal had brought “The Fives” to Chicago is consistent with Lewis having misattributed Hersal’s town of origin.  Lastly, the article also indicates that Lewis had weighed as much as “298 pounds” and was “a short, round tub of a man….” who had “....began medical treatments for obesity, went on the wagon, and today sticks to orange juice and a regulated diet.”  Thus, prior to having “went on the wagon,” Lewis’ years of excessive alcohol intake could easily have created memory problems for Lewis, causing him to have misattributed Hersal’s town of origin.

Lewis also indicates the following on page 17 in this 1959 Down Beat article about the man who played “The Fives”:


“This man played The Fives.  It was something new and it got Ammons and me all excited.  (Sure wish I could remember his name.)  The best way to describe his way of playin’ is to say that the right hand played The Fives while the left hand didn’t matter.  You could play any kind of left hand—a rumble bass, a walkin’ bass, and so on.“55

Since Ammons has said that Hersal Thomas was the first person to bring “The Fives” to Chicago, it is reasonable to infer that Lewis was talking about Hersal.

Of course, it is probable that “The Fives” has been used to refer to things that can be done by both the right and/or left hands, and thus both Lewis’ and Borneman’s explanations would be correct.

This explanation for the origin of the name, “The Fives,” contradicts the account given by Russell of being derived from a 5 O’clock performance time by Yancey or of a 5 O’clock departure time for a Chicago steam locomotive (as claimed by some historians).

Borneman’s and Lewis’s music-theory explanation for the origin of the term, “The Fives,” is consistent with other traditions in naming that allude to purely musical attributes, such as “8 to the bar,” and “Sixteen,” a term used by Eubie Blake to refer to playing four notes in the left hand for every one played in the right, thus yielding 16 notes in the left hand for each 4/4 measure played.

However, the cover and the lyrics of Hersal and George Thomas’s “The Fives” provide three other specific meanings for “The Fives.”  George Thomas’s lyrics for “The Fives” refer to both a 5 p.m. and a 5 a.m. arrival time for a train arriving in “Frisco” [San Francisco] and a time at which “he got the engineer told….”:

  “Five P. M. we due in Frisco….”


  “We’ll be in Frisco tomorrow morn sure at Five….”



“Fireman turned on water and he shevel in some coal, Five o-clock this morning he got the engineer told….”

Although the line above clearly refers to a 5 a.m. time, it is not clear that it is referring to an arrival time, but appears instead to be the time at which the “Fireman” communicated with the “engineer.”

Although the lyrics do not explicitly mention “Chicago,” Thomas writes:

“I’m leaving town…”



“...that West bound train does Run….”

Thus, it is clear that Thomas meant to refer to a departure town with a location east of San Francisco.  He might have intentionally been non-specific about the departure location so as to give the lyrics broader appeal.  However, since George Thomas was living in Chicago when he wrote these lyrics, many have assumed that the “town” from which he is leaving is Chicago.  However, I have not confirmed if there was actually a Frisco-bound train(s) with a “5” identification number, or whether there was a train(s) from Chicago that arrived in San Francisco at either 5 p.m. or 5 a.m.  Still, Chicago seems to be the best working assumption.

The number 5 on the cover of the sheet music, and the fact that the train is 4-6-0 with 5 axels (see above) is consistent with George Thomas’ lyrics specifically referring to the locomotive as “Old Five” and “number 5” in the lyrics to “The Fives.”  The fact that the number 5 is associated with the depicted train in these two ways suggests meanings beyond referring only to a time of arrival.  Moreover, in addition to the system of notation that classifies steam locomotives by the number of wheels, classifying steam locomotives is by their number of Axels is common.  That is, the steam locomotive on the cover of “The Five’s” sheet music is a 4-6-0 (by number of wheels) and a “5” by number of axels.  The system of classifying steam locomotives by their number of axels is still commonly used in Europe.  Specifically, the lyrics state:


“Old Five ready to take me away,...”



“Here come number 5 she make a mile a minute…”

The fact that their is an apostrophe in the title, “Five’s” on the cover of “The Five’s”  is quite likely to be semantically significant, as it implies that George Thomas wanted to refer to 5-axel steam locomotives in plural, rather than refer only to a specific steam locomotive using “5” as its identification number.  Moreover, in Europe, 5-axel steam locomotives are still referred to as “the fives.”  Thus, it makes perfect sense to use “The Five’s” to refer collectively to all 4-6-0 steam locomotives.

  The final line of “The Fives” provides the most metaphorical meaning of “The Fives:”


“.....I’ve got the Frisco I mean Frisco evening Fives.”

At first glance, this line might appear to be referring to an evening arrival time.  However, the expression “....I’ve got….” suggests a state of mind, such as when one says “I’ve got the Blues.”  However, George Thomas does not appear to be referring a depressed or sad mood.  Instead, given the exuberant imagery of Thomas’ lyrics, having the “Frisco evening Fives” sounds like he is ready to have an exciting night out in San Francisco.

Since George Thomas previously changed the title of his “Hop Scop Blues” to “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” and since he added lyrics referring to New Orleans to his purely-instrumental “Hop Scop Blues” that he had previously performed in Houston, a similar process probably took place when he wrote lyrics to “The Fives.”  That is, “The Fives” could have originally been an instrumental piano piece, whose title referred to characteristics about the intervals or meter in right and/or left hands, but this would have not prevented George Thomas from giving “The Fives” new meanings by adopting lyrics inspired by this pre-existing name.  By writing lyrics for “The Fives” while living in Chicago, Thomas could appeal to the desire of African Americans to travel from the hardships of Chicago or other cities to places that they imagined to be better, such as California.

Thus, “The Fives” has FIVE different meanings:

1.  Left-Hand Characteristics

2.  Right-Hand Characteristics

3.  A Locomotive’s Characteristics - Identification Number or number of axels on a 4-6-0 (a.k.a. 10-wheeler) locomotive - “Old Five” & “number 5”

4.  Times on the Clock - both 5 p.m. and 5 a.m.; including arrival times and a time at which the “Fireman….got the engineer told.”

5.  “The Frisco Evening Fives”
—a restless state of mind with an accompanying desire to transcend one’s current situation through travel and pleasurable activities.

© 2004-2008 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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