Burgin Mathews. Southern Cultures. Volume 15, Issue 3. Fall 2009.
One night I was laying down.
I heard mama and papa talking.
I heard papa tell mama
to let that boy boogie-woogie.
‘Cause it’s in him,
and it’s got to come out.
~ John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen”
“I like to boogie-woogie,” Madonna proclaimed in the title track of her 2000 release, Music: “it’s like riding on the wind and it never goes away.” The boogie-woogie-or just boogie for short-born one hundred years before Madonna sang its praises, had survived into a new millennium and, as far at least as that pop songstress was concerned, would be around forever. The boogie (at any rate, a music by that name) had emerged at the turn of the twentieth century among black piano players in the rural South, had migrated to the city, and had been embraced in turns by white pop-crooners, middle-class concert-goers, jazz pioneers, and electric hillbillies. It had helped give birth to rock ‘n’ roll and had lent its name and at least some of its ethos to glam rockers, disco dancers, and gangsta rappers. By the time it reached Madonna, by then a long way from its roots, the boogie was not just a musical idiom-indeed, it was no longer that at all-but a kind of drug, an oxygen and Holy Spirit: “it touches everything I’m in,” Madonna sang, apparently using the phrase “boogie-woogie” interchangeably with “music” itself; “got to have it every day.” Whatever it was, this boogie, it seemed to be at once everything and nothing, impossible to pin down, define, or explain: the wind.
The first documented appearance of the phrase “boogie-woogie” was in the title and lyrics of a 1928 recording by pianist Clarence “Pine Top” Smith. The record, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” reflected an upbeat and low-rumbling, improvisation- and percussion-heavy style of piano playing that had followed migrants like Smith from the South into the urban centers of the North. (Smith was born in Troy, Alabama, began his career in Birmingham, and by the early 1920s relocated again to Pittsburgh). The thing was blues, perhaps, but a distinctive subset of the blues. Another Alabama-born pianist, Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport, later claimed to have introduced Smith to the term “boogie-woogie,” though Smith had already mastered the style. In an interview in the 1950s Davenport recalled first witnessing a Pine Top performance, years earlier in a Pittsburgh honky-tonk, and telling the pianist: “Boy, look here, you sure have got a mean boogie-woogie.” “Pinetop,” Davenport said, “didn’t know what he was playing nohow,” but he happily adopted the phrase, incorporating it prominently into that breakthrough 1928 record. For the next few years Smith, Davenport, and others recorded a number of tunes in the same thumping style, popularizing both the sound and the name. With the spread of 78-RPM records, the label “boogie-woogie,” or the abbreviated “boogie,” would quickly come to eclipse the other names by which that music previously had been known.
If the boogies of Pine Top and Cow Cow and their piano-playing contemporaries shared a common sound, that sound would seem absent altogether from the twenty-first-century boogie-woogie put forth by Madonna. Musically, her recording had little to do with the boogies that had gone before, but certainly, some thread of the original remained. Madonna’s musical bearings, and her notion of what it was to boogie, harkened back not to the Pine Top era so much as the disco dance culture of the 1970s: “boogie” was perhaps the most ubiquitous word in the disco lexicon, and by the early 1980s the term was synonymous with dance—or even with movement itself. To say, “Let’s boogie” in the 1970s or ’80s could mean, “Let’s dance,” “Let’s get it on,” or simply, “Let’s go”—let’s get out of here, let’s move. (Evoking this last connotation, NASCAR announcer Darrel Waltrip has become famous for beginning each race with his trademark “Boogity, boogity, boogity- let’s go racing, boys!”)
But all this may be getting rather far afield of boogie’s origins and essential ingredients. Surely the broad definitions—the boogie as “music,” as “movement,” as “the wind”—obscure the origins and sound of a once distinct musical genre. If such abstract conceptions allow an expansiveness for the boogie that can incorporate all conceivable styles of American music, they run the risk of so thoroughly diluting the term as to render it meaningless. Thus, when music historians write about the boogie, they tend to limit themselves to the piano style popular among African Americans in the 1920s and ’30s and maintained today, almost like a museum artifact, by a tiny handful of very old-timers and contemporary revivalists (few of them African American), by boogie-woogie preservation societies, and by a festival circuit as far-reaching as Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and Australia. Contemporary dance-pop divas, meanwhile, are unlikely to fit into this historical narrative. Peter J. Silvester’s authoritative study, A Left Hand Like God: A History of the Boogie-Woogie Piano offers a painstakingly detailed look at the boogie-woogie piano tradition, concluding with brief biographies of living revivalists, studied practitioners who emulate with technical sophistication and impassioned commitment the sounds of a century ago. But Silvester is unconcerned with, and thus fails to acknowledge, the role that the boogie as a concept has gone on to play in our culture. The omission is not unusual. Historians of American music have done little to contemplate connections between the boogie piano tradition and, for example, the hillbilly boogie craze or later borrowings of the boogie name. An investigation of such connections, however-a search for the uniting thread, or threads-deepens our understanding of American musical subcultures and the conversations among them.
Even if the primary, recognizable sound of the original boogie-woogie was long gone by the turn of the twenty-first century, the concept of the boogie, and the appeal of the term, nonetheless persisted. Although musical sound is crucial to an understanding of the boogie’s meaning, more important is the boogie as an idea, as an organizing principle and overall outlook, than as musical fact. Where most chroniclers of the boogie have pronounced it dead by the end of the 1940s, writing off future uses of the word, it is not insignificant that something carrying the boogie name survived, even flourished, in the national consciousness. Ultimately, what mattered about boogie—what made boogie “boogie”—after all of its twists and rebirths and permutations, was first that it was a dance music, a Saturdaynight getting-down music; and that secondly, beneath all that, it still held onto its old winking connotations as a metaphor for sex, that other form of basic human movement. In this, the social function and the double meaning of the music, the dance floors of the discotheque and of the barrelhouse were not so far apart.
The Boogie-Woogie Piano: It’s Sounds and Origins
To begin really at the beginning we have to go back further yet than the arrival of Pine Top Smith, who only embodied and helped popularize an already longstanding tradition. In its origins, the boogie-woogie is a style of piano playing featuring percussive, right-hand improvisations over a repeating left-hand bass pattern, often known as a “walking,” “striding,” or “rolling” bass. The bass foundation typically moves with little variation through a three-chord progression and features eight beats to the bar, while the right hand creates a series of crossrhythms. The critical factor here is that separate, simultaneous activity of the two hands-the boogie pianist’s right hand knowing not what the left hand doeth, or at least acting with a startling independence from it. The resulting sound is a cohesive whole often deceptively “bigger” than the sound of the single instrumentalist. In boogie-woogie piano, rhythm is more important than melody or harmony, the piano exploited for its percussive potential-hence the boogie’s “solid rumbling tone” and the “raw, buoyant energy” that separates it from other forms of blues. The essential ingredient of the boogie-woogie sound is that rumble, the heavy rolling bass provided by the left hand: celebrated pianist Albert Ammons once remarked, quite rightly, that “the left hand tells the story of the boogiewoogie.” Ragtime composer Eubie Blake similarly observed the crucial role of the left-hand rhythm, remarking of boogie-woogie pianist William Turk: “He had a left hand like God.” (Author Peter Silvester would borrow Blake’s phrase for the title of his earlier-mentioned study of boogie-woogie piano, published in 1989.) Blake’s memory of William Turk also helps date the boogie-woogie sound back into the late nineteenth century:
He didn’t even know what key he was playing in, but he played them all … I can remember when I was thirteen-this was 1896-how Turk would play one note with his right hand and at the same time four with his left. We called it “sixteen”-they call it boogie-woogie now.
Blake was himself one of the originators of ragtime music, a contemporary and close musical cousin of boogie-woogie. Whereas the more refined, more restrained ragtime followed carefully constructed structural patterns, boogiewoogie emphasized the player’s room to improvise over the steady rolling bass, and his license to pound unabashedly with either hand. Music commentator Roy Carew summed up the relationship this way: “I would say that boogie-woogie was the bad little boy of the rag family who wouldn’t study. I heard crude beginnings of it,” he added, “in the back streets of New Orleans in those early years following 1904.” Eubie Blake’s amusement at William Turk’s lack of technical knowledge (“He didn’t even know what key he was playing in”) suggests the same perception, at least among the ragtime elite, of boogie’s unstudied crudity. Blake’s simultaneous admiration of Turk, though, indicates that however musically untutored the boogie pianist may be, his talent could be prodigious and his execution bordering on the divine (“a left hand like God”).
In 1939, William Russell, the first writer to describe at length the development and technique of boogie-woogie, described the music as “making full use of the resources of the instrument” and hence “the most pianistic of all jazz styles.” It was, in fact, “a style so pianistic that it could not be imagined on any other instrument.” Describing a classic tune by Mead “Lux” Lewis, Russell marveled: “one might imagine Honky-Tonk Train Blues was played by two pianists; when one sees it performed, one wonders how such simplicity of technique can produce torrents of tone from a very small range of notes.” Such feats-the creation of so much from a relatively constricted palette, the impersonation of three or four hands by a mere two-were the stock in trade of the boogie-woogie pianist.
A discussion of boogie-woogie, and any attempt at its definition, cannot be separated from the physical spaces in which the music was played; context was as crucial as sound in making the boogie boogie. Most essential to the spread of the boogie piano were the lumber and turpentine camps of the South and Midwest. From the last decades of the nineteenth century to the 1940s, throughout the South and westward into Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, rough migratory labor camps followed the natural resources of the land, drawing into them a substantial African American work force. On weekend nights the heart of the camp became the honky-tonk or barrelhouse, a rowdy social venue characterized by music, drinking, gambling, dancing, and, often, fighting. The barrelhouse was equipped typically with a piano, and traveling musicians would set up temporary home in the camps to provide the music. Boogie-a raw, energetic, danceable sound suitable to the environment-flourished. Guitarist Big Joe Williams, who used to accompany boogie pianist Little Brother Montgomery on the barrelhouse circuit, reminisced about the venues:
What’d all be happening there? Well they’d have fights ‘n cuts ‘n sometimes one of them’d kill somebody and never stop gambling-just sit on him and keep a-gambling, and back in them days they didn’t pay no attention, ‘n all like that, all in life. Plenty of fun back in those days, lots of fun.
Piano and guitar, me and Little Brother Montgomery used to play right down here at a place called Electric Mill … They had a big camp there, piano and guitar, and, ah, the girls dance. I got to sit on top of the piano and play my guitar and sometimes the women dance on top of the piano, all had a wonderful time. They shoot craps, dice, drink whiskey, dance, every modern devilment you can do, the barrelhouse is where it’s at.
Local variations on the basic boogie sound developed across the broad region where boogie originated. One early commentator of the boogie, E. Simms Campbell, wrote in 1939 that “in Houston, Dallas, and Galveston-all Negro piano players played that way.” Campbell adds that in the gatherings where boogie was played, “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.” By the 1930s, the Great Migration underway, the boogie had spread to far-flung cities where its players further popularized and standardized the sound: Birmingham, New Orleans, New York, Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and, perhaps above all, Chicago.
Some observers have suggested that the music may have developed as a kind of translation of guitar or banjo technique to the piano. Announcing “Now I’m going to pick this piano” in his famous “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” Pine Top Smith implies such an innovative approach to the instrument. The boogie-woogie pianist also assimilated the sound of the train, which “provided endless themes, as it was possible to represent the haunting sound of whistles, expresses romping along on a full head of steam, wheels clattering over points and, of course, the insistent rhythm of the driving wheels.” Though the early piano boogies were typically instrumental pieces, performed perhaps with ad-libbed asides, the very titles of some of these pieces do suggest the close connection between the boogie and the train. George and Hersal Thomas’s “The Fives,” for example, referenced a five o’clock arrival time, and sheet music published for that tune in 1922 featured an illustration of a locomotive on the cover. The name of Mead “Lux” Lewis’s “Honky-Tonk Train Blues” references the trains that ran between Chicago and the South, allowing northern migrants opportunities to make brief visits back home. These “honky-tonk trains” were equipped with a bar and dance floor and provided gigs for working musicians. In 1960, Edwin “Buster” Pickens recorded a traditional-style piano boogie called “Santa Fe Train,” and in the recording recalled his experiences playing for mill towns and lumber camps up and down the Santa Fe train lines. Indeed, Pickens was one of the last survivors of a school of pianists known as “The Santa Fe Group,” or simply “The Santa Fe,” itinerant musicians who made their living and name riding the Santa Fe into and out of the camps all over Texas.
As these examples indicate, boogie-woogie music, the train, the camp, and the northern outposts of the Great Migration were all critically intertwined. The fate of boogie-woogie was linked inextricably with the trains, which helped shape both the sound and spread of the music; the birth of the boogie coincided with the first waves of the Great Migration, and the down-home music of the lumber and turpentine camps became characteristic in the 1930s of black urban centers across the country. The railroad provided the central source of mobility, and its very movement was reflected not only in the music’s geographical spread but in its own emphasis on motion, its speed, and its rumble.
Equally influential to the boogie, meanwhile, were the rich rumbles of downhome worship. The boogie was as much a product of the church house as it was of the barrelhouse, whorehouse, or honky-tonk train. “The first time I heard the boogie-woogie piano,” blues guitarist T-Bone Walker once told an interviewer, “was the first time I went to church.” Remembering her childhood, singer Nina Simone observed: “Mama and them were so religious that they wouldn’t allow you to play boogie-woogie in the house, but would allow you to use the same boogiewoogie beat to play a gospel tune.” The musical overlap between sacred and secular styles-and tension, as Simone suggests, between sacred and secular contexts and intentions-is common to the development of African American music styles; gospel and blues have benefitted from a rich history of shared influence, even if the church has traditionally rejected the cultural trappings of the secular music. If the basic boogie beat was laid down in black worship services, then, it would have to move into seedier venues to develop into a secular style which announced itself outright as “boogie.” Observations like Walker’s and Simone’s suggest that the sound was consistent, in or out of the church; what would define boogie as boogie, then, was not its sound alone, but its context.
Part of that context was the wholly secular back-and-forth exchange between the musician and his audience. Joe Turner, whose singing accompanied the famous Boogie Woogie Trio of the 1940s, suggested this interplay, remembering his stint with the Trio: “As soon as the boys hit the first beat and the boogie got to movin’-why, you could feel that audience pickin’ up on that beat.” In the 1960s pianist Robert “Fud” Shaw-a member of the Santa Fe school, also nicknamed “The Ma Grinder”-insisted on the social function of the boogie:
When you listen to what I’m saying, 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.
The name of the music and its scene were inseparable: “boogie” denoted both event and sound. Once the boogie had found a new outlet in the recording industry, though, it became removed from the critical social situation: a listener could enjoy the latest boogie at home alone, sitting down. Many of the earliest recording artists helped keep the broader meaning intact, as we’ll see, by recreating the dance for the at-home listener. Indeed, in the absence of a live pianist, the records could themselves be played at a party. Even after the rolling basses would become irrelevant, the contextual meanings of “boogie” would persist.
Boogie Etymology: On Names
Before settling on the “boogie-woogie” or abbreviated “boogie,” the music had gone under a variety of names. Reminiscing into the last decade of the nineteenth century, musicians recalled the same music under the names of “barrelhouse,” “walking the basses,” “the sixteen,” “the fives,” “fast blues,” “eight-to-the-bar,” “Dudlow Joe,” or (suggesting the music’s regional beginnings) the “fast western,” “fast Texas,” “western rolling blues,” and “Galveston.” Only in the late 1920s would “boogie” eclipse those terms.
If “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” formally bestowed a name on a musical subgenre, the spread of that music coincided with other uses of the word “boogie.” Though the origins of the term are cloudy, it is certain that beginning in the 1920s and ’30s the word carried a number of simultaneous connotations, suggesting a constellation of varied but interconnected meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary offers these definitions of “boogie,” as a noun: “A derogatory term for Negroes,” “A party, esp. a rent party,” and “A style of blues (orig. piano) music popular at rent parties,” adding that “the term was adopted by rock groups in the late 1960s for music whose rhythm derived from repeated sequences of blues chords played on guitars.” The final entry notes “dancing to this music” as an occasional use of the noun and offers only a single definition for “boogie” as a verb: “To dance to boogie-woogie music.” Etymologists have suggested possible links to West Africa: to the Hausa word buga or the Mandingo bugc, both meaning “to beat drums,” or to the Wolof bogi, “to dance.” If such connections do exist, then some notion of “boogie” may have been present in the very beginnings of African American culture.”
Still, the word “boogie” does not appear to be documented until around the time Pine Top and others began recording in the 1920s. On the south side of Chicago, rent parties known as “boogies”-where piano music, dancing, and liquor were in plenty-charged a small admission that went toward paying the landlord. To “pitch boogie” could mean to throw such a party. The party piano player got in for free, his drinks on the house. “If you could play piano good,” pianist James P. Johnson remembered, “you went from one party to another and everybody made a fuss about you and fed you ice cream, cake, food, and drinks.” (“I don’t mind playin’ anytime y’all can get me drunk,” Pine Top Smith protested in one recording, reminding his audience of its end of the deal: “but Mr. Pine Top is sober now.”)
African American southerners relocated to the northern city made the earliest recordings of boogie-woogie piano, and the recordings often recaptured in the studio the festive scene of the rent party, the pianist and others offering over the music a lively commentary that helps recreate the social context in which partygoers would have heard the music. Will Ezell recorded “Pitchin’ Boogie” in 1929 and his half-spoken, half-sung rhymes suggest a variety of meanings of what it is to boogie-evoking the good-time party, drink, and promiscuous dance:
Now look here, girls, put on your best dress
We’re going to see who can pitch the boogie-woogie the best
Go and do a boogie-woogie [possibly “going to a boogie-woogie”] …
Now look over at that girl, got a dress of green
I swear to God she can boogie to me
Let’s have a boogie-woogie now,
Let’s have a time.
Let me have some wine and moonshine, two or three bottles of beer
We’re gonna pitch the boogie-woogie right here
Let’s boogie-woogie now.
Give me all your moonshine, give me all your gin
Close the door, we ain’t gonna let nobody else in
In “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” Pine Top Smith similarly evoked the social scene. “I want all y’all to know,” he spoke over his hard-working fingers, “‘Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie'”:
I want everybody to dance ’em-
Just like I tell you.
And when I say, “Hold yourself,”
I want all of you to get ready to stop.
And when I say “Stop,”
And when I say, “Get it,”
I want all of y’all to do a boogie-woogie.
Hold it now …
That’s what I’m talking about.
The instructions here echo “Fud” Shaw’s claim that his performance could “make them gals do anything,” telling them “when to shake it, and when to hold it back”—and indeed, the sexual thrust of the music is embedded even in the music’s name. The very names of American musical idioms tend to remind us, after all, of the connections between music and sex, and like the terms “jazz” and “rock ‘n’ roll,” “boogie” is a sex word. In the twenties and thirties “boogie” could refer to “a sexually promiscuous woman,” to sexual intercourse, or to the vagina itself; boogie joints, boogie places, and boogie houses were often euphemisms for brothels. Blues singer Lucille Bogan-a Birmingham entertainer whose lyrics often addressed the theme of prostitution-recorded a tune called “Down in Boogie Alley” in 1934, a song which bemoaned the loss of the singer’s man to the lure of the red-light district. Zora Neale Hurston notes in her “Glossary of Harlem Slang” that “for years, in the South, ‘boogie’ meant secondary syphilis.” Boogie also carried connotations of blackness. In his classic study, The American Language, H. L. Mencken identified “boogie” as among the gamut of “opprobrious names” leveled at “the Negro,” and literary uses of the derogatory label for blacks appear in the dialogue of Ernest Hemingway and Philip Roth characters. Even the single syllable “boog” was rich in association: black jazz musicians were often known amongst themselves as boogs in the thirties (whites were “spooks”), and Cab Calloway instructed dancers to “Boog It” in the title of a 1940 song later popularized in covers by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey.
And so, with its evocations of low-down piano playing, of good times, drinking, dancing, race, and sex, the term stuck, encompassing and outlasting the music’s more localized or personalized names. By the mid-1930s older terms like “fast western” or “Dudlow Joe,” though perhaps designating shades of nuance in style, must have sounded already archaic. There was in the word “boogie” a verbal play and a flexibility, which allowed it to endure decades-long shifts in fashion, genre, and meaning, and allowed it to outlast its lumber camp, rent-party, and whorehouse origins.
Labels, of course, are slippery things, and the talk of the musicians themselves has often helped blur such considerations as strict definition and genre distinction. “The boogie is a kind of blues, I guess,” T-Bone Walker offered. “Boogiewoogie was called barrelhouse in those days,” Leadbelly remarked, recalling the turn of the twentieth century, and then went on to describe Chee-Dee, one of the early barrelhouse players: “he boogied the blues.” The boogie, then, is not simply a subgenre of blues but, perhaps, an approach to the blues, a method of attack. On Romeo Nelson’s “Head Rag Hop,” a classic recording from 1929, a female voice exclaims to the pianist, “Daddy, that makes me feel so boogie-woogie!” And here, maybe, in the adjectival “boogie-woogie,” is the thing, the essential factor that lends an impressionistic quality to attempts to define this music: that like the blues, the boogie-woogie is not simply a music but a feeling. If the blues feeling is a low-down sadness, that boogie-woogie feeling seems only to suggest the good times: the all-night party, fast music, dancing, and sex. “If there is a ‘message’ in boogie,” music historian Giles Oakley writes, “it is an old one, that there is nothing wrong or sinful about having a good time and that there is human warmth in coming together.” Through changing social contexts, changing instrumentation and players and styles, these connotations seem to have stuck to the boogie.
Ascendancy: “Boogie-Woogie Comes to Life”
Though boogie was the coalescing of several strands of tradition, there are a handful of names that stand out in its chronology. Composer and musical publisher George W. Thomas penned “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” around 1911. Published as sheet music in 1916, the tune was most likely the first-published twelve-bar blues featuring the boogie-woogie’s characteristic walking bass line. With his brother Hersal (their sister was blues singer Sippie Wallace), Thomas composed “The Fives,” another boogie, in 1921. Joseph Samuels’ Tampa Blue Jazz Band recorded the composition in 1923, the same year that Thomas, as Clay Custer, made a record titled “The Rocks.” Both “The Fives” and “The Rocks” became piano staples. More boogie records followed: Hersal cut his own take of “The Fives” in 1924 and recorded other classic, boogie-styled compositions, such as 1925’s “Suitcase Blues.” Fletcher Henderson recorded “Chimes Blues” in 1923; Jimmy Blythe recorded “Chicago Stomps” in 1924; Cow Cow Davenport recorded his signature “Cow Cow Blues” first in 1925, again in 1926, and once more in 1928; Meade “Lux” Lewis cut “Honky Tonk Train Blues” in 1927; and the following year saw the recording of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” by Pine Top Smith.
In addition to the artists listed above, Jimmy Yancey, Cripple Clarence Loften, and Little Brother Montgomery each proved significant pioneers in the development of boogie piano. Several of these pianists had been playing boogie since the 1910s; Yancey, who remained unrecorded until 1939, had been a major influence on several of the Chicago masters. By the 1930s that city was the epicenter of boogie activity, producing, among others, boogie piano’s celebrated triumvirate and most diligent apostles: Meade “Lux” Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson.
Already a rich musical tradition within African American culture for over two decades, by the close of the 1930s boogie-woogie had crossed over into the national consciousness-and into the white imagination. White bandleader Tommy Dorsey recorded “Boogie Woogie,” Bob Crosby cut “Yancey Special” and “Honky Tonk Train,” and the boogie became ubiquitous among popular swing bands, figuring into the work of Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others. Records increasingly worked the word “boogie” into their song titles, even if the music bore no real resemblance to the established boogie tradition (just as market-savvy record executives slapped the word “blues” onto the titles of songs which had little clear connection to that idiom). In 1940, white trombonist-bandleader Will Bradley released his popular “Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” and, shortly thereafter, “Scrub Me, Mama, With a Boogie Beat,” a boogie re-working of “The Irish Washerwoman.” (The latter song became the basis of a profoundly racist 1941 cartoon short of the same name, released by Universal Pictures.) By World War II, the Andrews Sisters were making a national hero of the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B.” Even José Iturbi, a classical pianist popular in the forties, became known for incorporating boogie-themed compositions into his performances.
The moment that best symbolized the boogie’s arrival, though, came on December 23, 1938, when producer John Hammond brought together Chicagoans Lewis, Ammons, and Johnson as the Boogie Woogie Trio to play the “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall-an ambitious project which sought to trace the development of African American music from its origins to its contemporary embodiments, and to expose this parade of musical traditions to white American ears. In a line-up that included Count Basie and His Orchestra, Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, James P. Johnson, Mitchell’s Christian Singers, Helen Humes, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing, Sidney Bechet, and “Hot Lips” Page, the boogie pianists managed not only to hold their own but “perhaps no other part of the presentation received so much applause” as the trio. The concert was a huge success and a landmark historical event, and Carnegie Hall scheduled a follow-up concert on Christmas Eve 1939. At the height of Jim Crow the concerts brought together an integrated audience, inside one of the very bastions of American elite culture, and all for a celebration of African American culture. The moment suggested the beginnings of change in the relationship between African American music and American culture at large-change, in fact, which would shape the future of the boogie. As for the Boogie Woogie Trio, its members were suddenly famous beyond their original Chicago audiences, and they began a longterm, highly publicized and heavily attended gig at the elite Café Society in Greenwich Village, prompting a 1939 review in Downbeat magazine to proclaim “Boogie Woogie Comes To Life Once Again.” Also writing in 1939, just a few months after the Carnegie Hall debut, jazz critic William Russell happily predicted that because “the boogie-woogie has finally arrived, the future looks bright for piano blues.”
Perhaps Russell had no reason to think otherwise. But as the thirties gave way to the forties-even as the Andrew Sisters’s bugle boy helped fight fascism overseas and the boogie became further and further ingrained in American pop culture- among African American musicians and communities it began to fade away. Indeed, as boogie had become uprooted from the physical environments that were critical to defining the music and transplanted into the concert hall and jazz club, it was bound either to wither or to reinvent itself as something new. Boogie only became popular among whites, Amiri Baraka later wrote, when it “finally reached Carnegie Hall and oblivion”—a timing, Baraka suggested, that was less coincidence than another example of African Americans abandoning one of their cultural products once white imitators had co-opted it. Boogie had transformed into a national fad, and, as such, perhaps it was destined to implode, to become watered down and, in its overexposure, lose its meaning and punch.
Further Transformations: “Everybody’ s Doing that Boogie-Woogie Now”
If the 1940s witnessed the explosive rise and fall of the boogie-woogie piano as a mass entertainment, that decade also saw boogie’s transformation into a broader idea, a force perhaps, that would come to transcend musical definition. While some pioneers continued playing in the old style, if for increasingly white audiences, the boogie lost much of its power in African American culture as a creative musical expression. Still, if some African Americans rejected it outright as old stuff taken over by whites, others approached it as another available raw material for the creation of further forms of cultural expression. The boogie became the basis for many of the bebop excursions of Thelonious Monk and his contemporaries, while it served as a foundation of the New Orleans piano tradition propelled by Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and others. In a classic poem on the black experience in America, Langston Hughes greeted the 1950s with a witness to “the boogie-woogie rumble of a dream deferred.” If the boogie was all about movement in the first place, it was not meant to sit still and stagnate. One way or another, the boogie persisted, re-imagining itself in seemingly infinite guises.
Even as it became the property of swingers and crooners and underwent the transformations of beboppers, classical pianists, and poets, the boogie was also re-wrought by hillbilly hands, a development which proved crucial as an immediate precursor to rock ‘n’ roll. The first hillbilly record with an explicit reference to the boogie was Georgian Johnny Barfield’s 1939 cut, “Boogie Woogie,” whose chorus announced, rather fittingly, that “Everybody’s doing that boogie woogie now”; everybody, indeed, including Georgia hillbillies. For a boogie, the song moved at a mysteriously plodding pace, the lyrics backed only by the slow strum of Barfield’s guitar. But Barfield-an alum both of Gid Tanner’s rustic outfit, the Skillet Lickers, and Clayton McMichen’s jazzier stringband off-shoot, the Georgia Wildcats-was part of something bigger, and as the new decade opened boogie recordings by hillbilly musicians were becoming increasingly easy to find.
One of the pioneers of the hillbilly boogie was Moon Mullican, a white Texas piano player who developed his style during the 1920s and ’30s in East Texas barrelhouses, learning from and playing with African American piano players in the birthplace of the boogie. (He had a partner in one of the barrelhouses, a black pianist named “Shine,” and some sources suggest that his own nickname was a result of that association-“Moon” and “Shine.”) Mullican’s influence on the developing Western Swing of the 1930s and ’40s was wide-ranging and helped disseminate a boogie sound throughout the new genre. Moon was recording under his own name by the mid-forties, but his piano was first heard on recordings by Leon “Pappy” Selph, Cliff Bruner, Buddy Jones, and Jimmie Davis. As early as 1939, he appeared on Buddy Jones’s “Boog-a-Boo Baby,” another slow-paced, rather un-boogie tune which nonetheless asked, “Have you seen my boogie baby down your way?”
Still, the hillbilly boogie would not gain momentum until its popularization by Arthur Smith and, quickly on his heels, the Delmore Brothers. Smith recorded the instrumental “Guitar Boogie” in 1945; the tune became a hit and Smith spent much of his remaining career cutting follow-up boogies. That same year the Delmores recorded the guitar-driven “Hillbilly Boogie”-the tune that gave the hybrid genre a name-and followed that song’s success with a string of classic boogies, all spotlighting the brothers’ speedy guitar work and most also featuring the bluesy harmonica of Wayne Raney. The Delmores had built their reputation in the 1930s on a repertoire of gentle acoustic duets and sweet harmonies; in the late ’40s, they switched to a fuller band-complete with electric guitar-and a more up-tempo sound, defined by their high-charged boogies. As was becoming common, they made sure to include the word “boogie” itself in each title, so the buying public knew what it was getting: “Barnyard Boogie,” “Peach Tree Street Boogie,” “Mobile Boogie,” “Freight Train Boogie,” “Steamboat Bill Boogie,” “Boogie Woogie Baby,” and so on. Together, Smith and the Delmores initiated a full-blown hillbilly boogie craze. Into the first years of the next decade, boogies were recorded by both the country music elite and by the downright obscure, with records emerging from Hank Snow, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Al Dexter, Hardrock Gunter, Spade Cooley, Chet Atkins, Charlene Arthur, Merle Travis, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Jerry Irby, and, lo, Bill Haley and his Saddlemen. Soon thereafter the Saddlemen became the Comets and delivered “Rock Around the Clock,” marking the official arrival of rock ‘n’ roll.
Aside from its shift from black to white players, the hillbilly boogie worked another important change on the boogie of Cow Cow Davenport, Pine Top Smith and Meade “Lux” Lewis. Whereas an essential element of boogie had always been the piano on which it was played, the guitar, often electric, became the primary tool of the hillbilly boogie. Arguably with that shift, if not with the shift from African American to white, boogie-woogie was lost. Musically it was a new beast, but the boogie-as-idea persisted.
Most hillbilly boogies did follow the eight-to-the-bar progression, but not even this remained sacred for long. What mattered was the beat, the energy, and the modern worldview implied in that beat and energy. Boogie was the celebrated sound of modernity-the original boogie, after all, had developed in part from black pianists imitating the train on their instruments, and it had provided a soundtrack for Northern, urban migration. The hillbilly boogie, with its speed and electricity, was a music that announced the arrival of the future. The term itself was a playful oxymoron: “hillbilly” denoted the backward and primitive, while “boogie” was urban and slick. “Hillbilly” was by definition white, “boogie” fundamentally black. The resulting music and musician, to borrow the phrase with which writer Albert Murray characterizes all of American culture, was “incontestably mulatto.” This was a new kind of hillbilly, both backwoods and uptown, simultaneously white and black. Within a decade, the “hillbilly” designation, which had been used since the 1920s to market white rural music, seemed no longer appropriate, and gave way to the word still in use today, “country.” The hillbilly boogie became the place in that genre for smoking guitar runs and as the 1940s gave way to the ’50s the hillbilly boogie, refigured as rockabilly, proved to be one of the indisputable midwives of this new thing, rock ‘n’ roll.
The boogie’s influence abounded in the purportedly “new” music: Haley’s Saddlemen-cum-Comets begat “Rock Around the Clock”; guitarist Luther Perkins, who, the song said, “played the boogie-woogie, in the strangest kind of way,” gave Johnny Cash his trademark boom-chick-a beat; Jerry Lee Lewis returned the boogie to the piano to create what he called the “Lewis Boogie,” but which everyone else recognized by that point as, simply, rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard and Ray Charles both openly acknowledged the boogie roots of their playing, and in his autobiography Chuck Berry identified his own preferred term for his guitar style, while dramatizing the pointlessness of any labeling attempts. “Call it what you may,” Berry wrote: “jive, jazz, swing, soul, rhythm, rock, or even punk. It’s still boogie so far as I’m connected with it.”
Other proto-rockers adopted boogie to their own ends. Out in Los Angeles, a zoot-suited Mexican American bassist named Don Totsi cut “Pachuco Boogie,” an eight-to-the-bar piano blues incorporating scat-singing and rapping in calo, the Chicano street slang. The title of the song refers to L.A.’s developing culture of rebellious Chicano hipster youth, known as Pachucos. The Pachucos were slickly cosmopolitan, possessed of a self-confident swagger and their own rich, inside anguage. Drawn to many aspects of African American urban culture, the Pachucos blended elements of African American fashion, music, and cool (zoot suits, jazz, and so on) with their own Mexican cultural roots. Totsi’s “Boogie,” released in 1948, was an immediate hit, inspiring a musical movement that combined the boogie-woogie tradition with other elements of R&B, swing, and mambo, a driving amalgam that for a few years became the sound of the Pachuco subculture. Predictably, additional Pachuco boogies followed, including Totsi’s “Wine-O-Boogie” and “Chicano Boogie”; Lalo Guerrero’s “Chicas Patas Boogie” and “Marijuana Boogie”; and Jorge Cordoba’s “Frijole Boogie”—all recorded between 1948 and 1950.
Historian Chuy Valera notes that Totsi’s original exemplifies “the transition Mexican American immigrants were undergoing from a rural to an urban people in the United States at a time when Anglos were not ready to admit them into their social order.” The record, Valera continues, “is an audio reflection of the bilingual reality that young Chicano zootsuiters were living in the 1940s.” As in its earlier incarnations, then, the boogie was a product of the transitional moment. Two decades earlier, African Americans had brought the boogie from the rural South into Chicago and other urban settings; in the 1940s, white country musicians had borrowed the boogie to reinvent themselves in pop culture as citified and modern, undercutting the stereotypes long associated with the derogatory “hillbilly” designation. The boogie similarly served the Pachuco. For each of these groups, the boogie accompanied a kind of bicultural experience, as its practitioners stood with one foot planted in their own downhome roots, the other foot stepping into the world of the new, the urban, and hip.
The same year that Totsi initiated the Pachuco boogie craze, John Lee Hooker recorded his own classic “Boogie Chillen’,” creating a much-imitated sound which, like the hillbilly boogie, would feed directly into rock ‘n’ roll. Hooker’s boogie was an electric guitar blues-“just an old funky lick I found,” he said-accompanied by his own spoken and sung riffs on the subject of boogie-woogieing. The song became a staple among blues guitarists and juke-joint jukeboxes and quickly scaled Billboard’s R&B charts. In the 1960s and ’70s white rock bands built their own pop hits around its simple guitar riff. Hooker himself remained forever identified with the boogie, often attracting the nickname “Boogie Man.” In a subsequent recording he announced that “Boogie’s a thing, never die,” but in the same song admonished that “too much boogie-woogie, boys, ain’t good.” Looking back, Hooker spoke of his breakthrough 1948 single as “the first rock.”
Certainly there are numerous contenders to that title, but it is clear that without the sounds and without the notion of boogie that John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and that army of electric hillbillies articulated in various forms, rock ‘n’ roll would not have become “rock ‘n’ roll” as we know it, or, indeed, might not have become anything at all. From its beginnings, rock ‘n’ roll has depended, and depended heavily, on the boogie.
By the 1950s, the boogie had worked its way too deeply into American music, into the very fabric of everything from jazz to country to rock, to really disappear. The boogie craze per se seemed by now to be over-the compulsion, for example, to reference the very word “boogie” in song titles and lyrics had lapsed-but as both a music and an overarching concept boogie had laid foundations that would reach into the twenty-first century. Other crazes came and went, each allowing for a new expression of the boogie. In the late 1960s, boogaloo (or boogalu), a music and dance which merged African American R&B with Cuban and Puerto Rican styles, emerged from New York City barrios and ghettos, becoming a dance-club craze before hitting the mainstream through “American Bandstand” and other national outlets. Particularly popular records were Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang,” Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That,” Johnny Colón’s “Boogaloo Blues,” and Hector Rivera’s “The Party.” Like the earliest recordings of the boogie-woogie piano, these performances reflected an active dance culture, and the musicians typically recreated the party-scene on their records, punctuating the music with the handclapping and carrying-on of a live event. And as with other boogie trends, the boogaloo fever was the product of cross-cultural pollinations.
In the 1970s, boogie was ubiquitous. John Hartford, pioneer of long-haired bluegrass, proclaimed rather mysteriously in 1971: “Every time they boogie, well, it gives me a thrill / They always seem to do it way up on the hill.” In 1972 Bette Midler resurrected the Andrew Sisters’s Bugle Boy and took him again into the Top Ten. The same year David Bowie sounded a sweeping call to “let all the children boogie,” while his glam-rock compatriot Marc Bolan of T. Rex found in the boogie the perfect vehicle for his joyous rock-pop confections. Another boogaloo dance-distinct from the boogaloo above, and sometimes known as the electric boogaloo-became a popular street-dancing style in the 1970s, popularized by James Brown and surviving into the break-dancing styles of the 1980s. Most notably in this era, disco-another music geared specifically for the dance, again with unmistakable undercurrents of sex-gleefully harnessed the power of boogie. A quick sampling of disco song titles suggests the culture’s identification with everything boogie: “Boogie Flap,” “Boogie Nights,” “Boogie Fever,” “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” “Blame it On the Boogie,” “Boogie Wonderland.” “America needs you!” Disco Tex screamed in 1974 ‘s “Get Dancin'”: “We need you to go dance! We need you to get together, and boogie woogie woogie woogie!” But the most successful prophet of the disco boogie was Harry Wayne Casey of K. C. and the Sunshine Band, whose mid-1970s hits, “Boogie Shoes” and “I’m Your Boogie Man,” were perhaps the era’s most exuberant proclamations of a new boogie aesthetic.
And on it endured. By this point in its evolution, boogie had become broad and flexible enough to encompass any type of music, provided that music contained some element of high energy and upbeat dance. Country’s Brooks and Dunn, perhaps hoping to usher in a hillbilly boogie revival, introduced their “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” which became a staple of the 1990s line-dancing craze; hip-hop’s Timbaland and Magoo scored a hit in 1997 with “Up Jumps da Boogie”; and Madonna welcomed the new millennium with her boogie anthem. In 2001 Tupac Shakur prodigies Outlawz gave the world “Boxspring Boogie,” replacing boogie’s former winking wordplay and penchant for innuendo with straight, hardcore nastiness. Gangsta rap produced a string of gangsta boogies, beginning with Schoolly D’s “Gangster Boogie” in 1984. Kool Mo Dee and Snoop Dogg both followed with tracks by the same name, in 1991 and 2005, respectively, and there were variations by other artists: perhaps a dozen different recordings (by Foxy Brown, South Central Cartel, Gangsta Pat, and others) all bearing the title “Gangsta Boogie.”
Expanded far beyond its roots, “boogie”-noun, verb, and adjective-is a uniquely American musical expression of basic human drives: for the good times, for dance and for sex, for raw and spontaneous self-expression, for the up-tempo moment. It had begun as a musical style, a distinct sound in the larger blues category, but sound, event, and feeling had been inseparable from the beginning. As the boogie reached communities beyond its birthplace, that original sound may have faded, but the associations and the attendant feeling remained, exerting an appeal that could fit-and even bridge-a range of social contexts. Throughout its hundred and more years it has emerged over and over as a kind of cultural badge, adopted and adapted by a variety of subcultures, and it has meanwhile served as a link between its disparate communities. Shaped especially by communities on the edges of society, the boogie is nonetheless, by now, entrenched in the mainstream of national culture. It seems certain that the idea of the boogie-this peculiarly American invention, this seemingly unstoppable, century-old shape-shifter-will continue to find expression in contemporary genres and in genres yet unborn.