Be honest...when you think of music and Texas in the same sentence, what comes to mind? Dixie Chicks? Mickey Gilley? George Strait? Buddy Holly? Roy Orbison? Maybe, if you like the Blues, Johnny Copeland? I am the first to sling mud at the state of Texas, but I'm also the first to admit that there is much more to its cultural tradition than I am aware of. Texas may be C&W, but it's also Blues. And Gospel. And Jazz. It's a big state, and much more diverse than most people are aware of.
If New Orleans is the home of Jazz, we have Texas to thank for the musical style which became known as "Boogie Woogie." Who'd a thunk it? Aside from Bob Wills and other, mostly Country musicians, I never knew that Texas had much of a homegrown musical tradition that extended beyond steel guitars, fiddles or honky tonks, let alone a musical tradition steeped in its own regional Black culture. In fact, I never really knew just how large and long established Texas' Black community was. I have always thought of Texas as being the most "White" of all of the Southern States...and I couldn't really explain to you where that perception comes from.
Surely you all know what Boogie Woogie is, but just in case there's any question allow me to start this off with just one example:
I was first "introduced" to boogie woogie in the early 70's, through the music of Commander Cody and, later, Asleep at the Wheel. From there it was a natural progression towards more traditional Blues players whose music was steeped in the style: Pinetop Perkins, Champion Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair, Big Joe Turner and others.
Among the rock bands I grew up with that played some boogie woogie, there were Little Feat, the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, Dr John.
I've always found the music infectious...propelling. Happy. But I never knew much about its origins.
In the book "Jazzmen: The Story of Hot Jazz Told in the Lives of the Men Who Created It", E. Simms Campbell writes:
Boogie Woogie piano playing originated in the lumber and turpentine camps of Texas and in the sporting houses of that state. A fast, rolling bass—giving the piece an undercurrent of tremendous power—power piano playing.Whether it was called Barrelhouse piano, Fast Country, Fast Texas, house-rent blues or, only later, Boogie Woogie, the music had two key components...the uptempo bass line and the ham fisted piano playing style. The etymology of the phrase "boogie woogie" is a little vague, but the consensus seems to be that the term derives from an African term that was a colloquialism for intercourse. Indeed, the word "Jazz" is also attributed the same meaning. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the African roots of the term, which notes
In Houston, Dallas, and Galveston—all Negro piano players played that way. This style was often referred to as a 'fast western' or 'fast blues' as differentiated from the 'slow blues' of New Orleans and St. Louis. At these gatherings the ragtime and blues boys could easily tell from what section of the country a man came, even going so far as to name the town, by his interpretation of a piece.
Dr. John Tennison, a San Antonio psychiatrist, pianist, and musicologist has suggested some interesting linguistic precursors. Among them are four African terms, including the Hausa word "Boog" and the Mandingo word "Booga", both of which mean "to beat", as in beating a drum. There is also the West African word "Bogi", which means "to dance", and the Bantu term "Mbuki Mvuki", which means, "Mbuki—to take off in flight" and Mvuki—"to dance wildly, as if to shake off ones clothes". The meanings of all these words are consistent with the percussiveness, dancing, and uninhibited behaviors historically associated with boogie-woogie music. Their African origin is also consistent with the evidence that the music originated among newly emancipated African Americans.Regardless of where the term may have come from, as a musical style it was on the scene and being played by most Black pianists in Texas by the 1920's, and probably well before that.
Probably the first hit recording done in the style was also the song which forever gave the name to it. Recorded in 1928, Pinetop's Boogie Woogie was an immediate hit that influenced blues pianists for years to come. Clarence "Pinetop" Smith was born in Alabama, not Texas, in 1904. The success he had with this song garnered him a recording contract, and he was scheduled to release another record in 1929. Unfortunately, he didn't live that long. He was shot to death in a Chicago dance hall brawl before he could record another song. Here is Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins singing "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie." His frequent cover of the song during his career led to his nickname.
Pinetop Perkins started out as a guitarist, as a musical aside. He became a pianist only after an unfortunate incident in which he suffered a severe knife injury which severed the tendons in his left arm...the assailant was a choirgirl in Arkansas. I don't have any more specifics regarding the incident, but one can fill in the blanks and infer that an advance was made that wasn't reciprocated. That's the Blues.
Boogie Woogie was always meant to be danced to. That's why the lyrics to Pinetop's song consist almost entirely of instructions to the dancers. The earliest pianists that pioneered the style in East Texas used to roam the logging camps by hitching rides on the railcars. They would get off at a camp and play a dance for whatever donations the workers could spare, and move on to the next camp down the line. The web sites dealing with the history of boogie woogie that I've visited have never fully explained to my satisfaction how a pianist can be an itinerant musician...how do you transport even an upright piano by jumping the rails? Eventually the music took hold in more urban environs like Dallas, where jazz and blues artists playing clubs in the Deep Ellum district quickly embraced it. Eventually it spread out to St Louis and Chicago. The rail road was central not only to the spread of the music beyond its geographic origins in Northeast Texas, but also the sound and cadence of the music itself. Think, for a moment, of the sound a steam locomotive makes as it approaches...CHOO,choo, choo, choo, CHOO, choo, choo, choo. Now listen to the hammering rythymic piano playing. Same cadence.
Here's a smoking boogie piano duet between Albert Ammons (Chicago) and Pete Johnson (Kansas City, MO). Together, they helped spark the true heyday of Boogie Woogie's popularity in the late 30's and during the 40's. Embedding was disable, but follow this youtube link:
Albert Ammons was a fantastic pianist, and is the father of jazz tenor sax player Gene Ammons. Besides writing his own compositions in the Boogie Woogie style, he reinterpreted old American Standards such as the State Song of Florida, "Swanee River". He turned it inside out and stood it upon its head. Pete Johnson played for some time in Big Joe Turner's band, and here they are playing one of his own songs "Roll "em, Pete" (Asleep at the Wheel would remake this as "Roll 'em Floyd"):
Listen to that song, recorded in 1938, and try telling me that rock and roll was born in the Fifties. I don't think so. Jerry Lee Lewis owes his entire career to the Boogie Woogie musicians he heard growing up in Northern Louisiana. "Great Balls of Fire" owes much to "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie", both in his piano playing and in the coy instructions he gives during the song to "shake it...real slow". Or Little Richard...take a listen to his rendition of the song "Rock Island Line", first popularized by Lead Belly. (Lead Belly's guitar style, by the way, was adapted from boogie woogie piano. He was the first to try to duplicate the percussive, piano base lines done with the left hand on the guitar):
Really, Boogie Woogie, as a pure musical form, only enjoyed a day in the sun from between 1930 to the end of the 40's, and by the 40's it had been appropriated by White musicians and transformed into other musical genres. It gave rise to Texas Swing, Jive, Rockabilly, uptempo Blues and, eventually, rock and roll. Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Glen Miller, the Andrew Sisters, and Louis Jordan used elements of the style to forge their own musical destinies. Here is Louis Jordan and his band doing the great song "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie"...no rolling piano solos, but clearly influenced by the musical style, and destined to become a staple of the Texas Swing band Asleep at the Wheel:
I don't care if you grew up and cut your musical teeth on Green Day or Rage Against The Machine...if you can't appreciate that tune by Louis Jordan, you're no music lover.
In later years, Blues musicians have carried on the boogie tradition. One of the best was Hound Dog Taylor, who rose to prominence in the mid Sixties and carried on into the Seventies...like Lead Belly, he didn't use the piano, but incorporated the Boogie rythym into his guitar playing style and song arrangements:
But at the end of the day, this music isn't meant to be studied or analysed or subjected to a form of musical genealogy...it's meant to be moved to. It's about joy, and ecstacy. It's about dance, and the need to move to the music. Here is a present day torch bearer of the style, Silvan Zingg...from Switzerland, of all places:
Seriously, though, if you are interested in learning more about this musical form, I have a couple of links that are exceptional resources:
and for more, specifically, on the Texas connection to this music: