28 - Eubie Blake’s “Charleston Rag”
by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie
Eubie Blake’s “Charleston Rag:”
A 1917 Piano Roll with a Non-Swinging, Grace-Noted, Broken-Octave Walking Bass Line
One of the earliest Ragtime piano rolls recorded that had a non-oom-pah, broken-octave walking bass line was Eubie Blake’s 1917 piano roll of “Charleston Rag,” copyright August 8, 1917, and recorded as a piano roll in late 1917 in New York, NY on Ampico roll 54174-E. However, Blake’s walking bass line is not typically regarded as a Boogie Woogie bass line, but rather as a “Reverse-Boogie Bass"58 figure. That is, Blake plays the lower note of each octave couplet as a grace note, with the 2nd note of each octave pair falling on the down beat, which sounds almost like a progression of unison octaves, rather than being a progression of note pairs in which one note in each pair is in the “swung” syncopated position off of the downbeat that allows for the poly-rhythmic feel, and interplay between left and right hands as heard in Boogie Woogie. A performance of the “Charleston Rag” piano roll can be heard on the 2003 Biograph album, “The Greatest Ragtime of the Century” and the Biograph album, “Eubie Blake: Memories of You” CDs.
Interestingly, in the 1917 piano roll of “Charleston Rag,” Blake plays his “grace-note” broken-octave walking bass line with accents as if they could have been derived from a literal reading George Thomas’s “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues”, published in 1916. That is, in Thomas’s original 1916 publication of “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” the lower note in each octave pair of the swinging broken-octave walking bass was notated as a grace note, suggesting to the uninformed reader that the lower note in each octave couplet was not supposed to be given the same accent as the higher note an octave up that immediately followed. Thus, anyone who was giving Thomas’ sheet music a literal reading, and who had not heard “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” played the way George Thomas intended could have mistakenly thought that the piece was supposed to be performed in the literal “grace-note” fashion as we hear in Eubie Blake’s 1917 piano roll of “Charleston Rag,” and thus would also lack the swing feel so important to Boogie Woogie and Jazz in general.
Since Blake’s grace-noted, non-swinging, broken-octave walking bass line would result from a literal reading of the broken-octave bass line in the sheet music of George Thomas’s “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” the possibility that Blake was influenced by the 1916 sheet music of “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” seems plausible. That is, if east-coast musicians made a literal reading of the grace notes printed in Thomas’s 1916 sheet music, the rhythm would be consistent with the rhythm heard the following year in Blake’s piano roll performance of his “Charleston Rag.” In 1969, Blake claims to have composed “Charleston Rag” before 1900 and says he says he did not know how to write music at that time. Given the relatively greater technological sophistication of the east coast United States at the time as compared to locations in the west, it is perplexing that it would have taken Blake over 17 years to find a way to document a walking bass line that just happens to sound like a literal rhythmic reading of George Thomas’s “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” sheet music that was published in the prior year of 1916. (For a further discussion on unbelievable claims made by Eubie Blake, see the section on him below.)
Because Blake’s grace-noted bass line in Charleston Rag is not a Boogie Woogie bass line, it was instead referred to as a “Reverse Boogie Bass“58 in 1973 by Robert Kimball and William Bolcom in their book, ““Reminiscing with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake,” in which the authors state the following on page 42:
“One day a neighbor lady called on Emma Blake. ‘Sister Blake, I heard someone, sounded just like little Hubie, playing at Aggie Shelton’s [a Baltimore brothel] the other night. And I know it’s little Hubie, Em, because of that wobble-wobble in the left hand.’ The ‘wobble-wobble,’ the sort of reverse boogie bass that is still Eubie Blake’s trademark, is found in his earliest composition, “Charleston Rag”—here it would get him into trouble.“58
The “trouble” to which the authors refer is the fact that this story conveys how Eubie Blake’s mother is said to have discovered that he had been playing at Aggie Shelton’s brothel.