29 - U. S. Highway 59 from Texarkana to Houston to El Campo - “The Boogie Woogie Highway”

by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie

U. S. Highway 59 from Texarkana to Houston to El Campo - “The Boogie Woogie Highway”

(A.K.A. “The Boogie Woogie Corridor”)

The migratory pathway of Leadbelly (from Mooringsport, Louisiana to Dallas, Texas) takes him through Marshall, Texas no later than the time that the Thomas family probably came through Marshall.  Also, Leadbelly was known to have spent some time in the Texarkana area, a town through which the Thomas family almost certainly passed on their migration to Houston, TX.  These correspondences of Leadbelly’s overall east-to-west migration with the Thomas family north-to-south migration, coupled with Thomas’s having said that he based his “Hop Scop Blues” on music being played in East Texas point strongly to Northeast Texas/Northwest Louisiana as the area where we have what appears to be the earliest eyewitness report of Boogie Woogie being played in 1899.35 (Note:  Eubie Blake’s alleged 1896 account is not credible.  See section below.)

Specifically, Ernest Borneman notes on page 14 in his chapter on Boogie Woogie (Chapter 2) in the 1957 book, “Just Jazz"35:


“Leadbelly says he heard it first in 1899 in Caddo County on the Texas Border.”


In reality, there is no “Caddo County.”  However, there is a Caddo “Parish,” the Louisiana equivalent of a “county.”  Moreover, Caddo Parish and Harrison County, Texas straddle the Texas border.  Therefore, the exact location of this Leadbelly’s eyewitness account remains uncertain.  If you give more credence to the word “Caddo,” you might conclude that it was on the Louisiana side of the border.  However, if you give more credence to the words, “county,” and “Texas Border,” you might think it more likely to conclude that Leadbelly heard the music on the Texas side of the border.  One thing is for certain:  The region was culturally unified and the state boundary was defined only by a line of longitude, not by a barrier such as a River.  Thus, locations of Railroads, Roads, and known music venues would be more reliable clues as to which side of the border Leadbelly first heard Boogie Woogie.  Regardless, by 1899, it was almost certainly being played on both sides of the Texas-Louisiana state border.

(Note:  For reasons discussed below, I do not believe Eubie Blake’s claim of hearing Boogie Woogie in Baltimore in 1896.)

To the extent that the earliest Boogie Woogies were influenced by the same forces that were shaping the right-hand parts in Ragtime, Scott Joplin’s family’s migration from Marshall and/or Linden, Texas to Texarkana suggests the regional presence of influences that almost certainly informed the earliest Boogie Woogie well before 1899.  (Joplin’s father moved the Joplin family to Texarkana so that he could take job with the Texas & Pacific Railroad.)  Indeed, some of the syncopated right-handed parts of Ragtime are virtually indistinguishable to what appears in the right-handed parts of Boogie Woogie.  If it were not for Boogie Woogie having gotten away from the straight, oom-pah pulse of Ragtime, and if it were not for the polyrhythmic interplay between right and left hands in Boogie Woogie, it might have never come to be regarded as a style distinguishable from Ragtime.  The Texas & Pacific tracks between Texarkana and Marshall are still in use by Union Pacific, and parallel Highway 59.  South of Marshall, Highway 59 continues to Houston along the route of what was the Houston, East, and West Texas Railroad.  This route takes Highway 59 through some of the most prominent lumber towns of the late 1800s (including Lufkin & Diboll) where various barrelhouse existed at the lumber camps.  Moreover, lumber baron Arthur Temple (who controlled Diboll) lived in Texarkana and traveled back and forth between Texarkana and Diboll.)  Moreover, George W. Thomas, Jr. brought Boogie Woogie to Houston.

From Houston, Highway 59 turns westward towards El Campo, Texas.  As Highway 59 exits Harris County and enters Fort Bend County, it passes by Stafford, the birthplace of Boogie Woogie pianist, Robert Shaw (born 1908).  Stafford is historically important because it was an initial west terminus of the very first railroad in Texas, The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad.  According to the Texas Handbook of History in George C. Werner’s article on “Railroads”:


“Work on this railroad began in 1851, and the first locomotive, named for Sherman [General Sidney Sherman], arrived in late 1852.  The initial twenty-mile segment from Harrisburg (now a part of Houston) and Stafford’s Point (now Stafford) opened by September 7, 1853.  The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado was not only the first railroad to operate in Texas, it was the second railroad west of the Mississippi River and the oldest component of the present Southern Pacific.”


Since slavery had not been abolished at the time the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad was built, this earliest stretch of Texas railroad was built largely by slave labor.  Moreover, prior to the end of the Civil War, slaves’ access to pianos was limited.  Consequently, piano music at slave-populated railroad camps associated with the construction of this track would have been limited, if present at all.  However, the sound of the early steam locomotives on this line no doubt served as auditory inspiration for music that followed.  Also, even as late as 1910, Fort Bend County had an African American population that rivaled that of Harrison County in Northeast Texas.

After traversing Fort Bend County, Highway 59 reaches El Campo, the birthplace of Boogie Woogie great, Little Willie Littlefield, who (along with Amos Milburn of Houston) had a profound influence on Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Moreover, El Campo is located in Wharton County, which, although not as high as Fort Bend County, has historically had one of the highest African American populations in Texas.

Thus, for all of these reasons, I call Highway 59 from Texarkana to Houston to El Campo “The Boogie Woogie Highway” or “The Boogie Woogie Corridor.”  It might make sense to include stretches of Highway 59 north of Texarkana or west of El Campo as part of “The Boogie Woogie Corridor.”  However, to do so, I would want to support such a designation by knowledge of Boogie Woogie players or sources of influence north of Texarkana or west of El Campo.  For example, Lee Ree Sullivan of Texarkana reported to me in a1986 interview that his Boogie Woogie mentors had told him that Boogie Woogie was being played at logging and construction camps along the Texarkana and Northern Railroad (later known as the Kansas City Southern Railroad)68.  The first 10 miles of the Texarkana and Northern were constructed in 1885, and run northward from Texarkana to the Red River along present-day Highway 59.

Moreover, since Robert Johnson made his first recordings in San Antonio, Texas, and since Louis Jordan was inspired by the Texas and Pacific Railroad presence in El Paso, Texas, I would not want to rule out possible Blues and Boogie Woogie influences west of El Campo.  However, in general, one can visualize a “Boogie Woogie and Blues Gradient” that becomes more intense as one travels from West to East Texas.  (The fact that parts of U. S. Highway 59 are going to become the new Interstate Highway 69 is a fitting metaphor for the libidinal energy associated with Boogie Woogie.)

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© 2004-2009 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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