Dancing music in the C20: boogie woogie (1924-28)

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Although the series will not always follow a step-by-step evolution of one particular sound, – watch out for some curveballs coming your way soon! – the previous instalments of Dancing music in the C20 have so far mapped derivatives of cakewalk – early examples of ragtime, blues, jazz and big band – and examined how each iteration added or subtracted key elements from an existing formula to arrive at the characteristics unique to their particular taxonomy.

This week’s instalment, on boogie woogie, is no exception. Boogie woogie broke ranks with the pattern up until now of each new iteration of the blues family increasing in musical complexity, an obvious symptom of which was the swelling of the size of musical ensembles – from the basic blues unp groups to the near-symphonic proportions of the big band. Boogie woogie, however, was resolutely un-epic and non-ornate. It was brilliantly stripped-down dance music, more reminiscent of the piano rags of Scott Joplin than the New World fantasias of George Gershwin, but injected with a pounding and insistent rhythm that could carry a dance floor without full-band accompaniment.

The Jazz In America website lists some of the characteristics of ragtime as:

  • It was born in gin mills, lumber camps and rent parties.
  • There was not much subtlety to the music – poor to bad instruments and unschooled instrumentalists.
  • Volume was produced by physical strength.
  • Form was always a blues; songs had no real beginning or ending, much like African music.
  • Emphasis on rhythm rather than melody.
  • Return to breaks to create tension and to rest the left hand.
  • The left hand, which never varied, could have been an outgrowth of “stride” piano.
  • Boogie Woogie patterns were personalized much like the field hollers and hawking cries.
  • The left hand ostinato (a repeated figure) served as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.
  • Unpianistic music.
  • Percussive and rugged.
  • Uneven and unpredictable.
  • Eight-eighth notes to the bar or at least an eighth note feeling.
  • Use of octaves, trills, etc.
  • A two voiced music.
  • Rhythm and color were more important than chords.
  • Right hand embroidered and supplied filigree
  • Blues scale with chromaticism.
  • Many other melodies transformed to boogies. (i.e., “Bumble Bee Boogie,” “Begin the Beguine Boogie,” “Chopstick Boogie”).

Although 12-bar appears on a cursory listen to form the basis of a lot of boogie woogie tunes, measures were often of an uneven length and subject to change at the player’s whim – consistent with the improvisatory nature of much early blues. The right hand would   introduce a new melodic idea with each chorus, or improvise freely throughout, while the left hand would hammer out the driving “eight to the bar” 8/8 rhythm that later provided an engine for rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

The distinctive chug of boogie woogie was often considered analogous to that of a steam train, which prompted American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax to write of boogie woogie in The Land Where the Blues Began:

“Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

It’s a romantic interpretation of the form’s rhythmic sense, but Lomax sometimes come under fire from modern music historians for allowing such romanticism to colour his studies in a way that could be perceived as patronising and borderline racist.

Our playlist of early boogie woogie almost exclusively features solo piano performers. Emphasising that boogie woogie is dance music through and through, almost all of the early lyrics to these songs are about dancing or inciting audience members to dance.

Interestingly, while our previous playlists compiling the earliest instances of recorded ragtime, blues, jazz and big band featured a majority of white players, our boogie woogie playlist features just one white performer – Kansas City Frank. Is this a signal of recording technology and opportunities becoming more available to black musicians by the mid-1920s, or was there something about boogie woogie that made it less appealing or accessible to white audiences and musicians?

Spotify playlist: early boogie woogie (1924-28)

Blues historian LeRoi Jones wrote in his book Blues People that “The piano was one of the last instruments to be mastered by the Negro performers, and it was not until the advent of boogie woogie that Negro musicians succeeded in creating a piano music that was within the emotional tradition of Negro music.”

However, although boogie woogie recordings did not emerge until after the largely African-American ragtime, blues, jazz and big band musics had blossomed in the recording industry, Eliot Paul’s That Crazy American Music cites evidence that northeast Texan boogie woogie was significantly older than any of these styles, dating back to the 1870s at least.

Jazz was a modern music, uniquely American and ’20th century’ in tone – growing to take full advantage of modern technology and media – so it perhaps make sense that its demographic would be more cosmopolitan in nature than boogie woogie. And blues’ light entertainment popularity made its form more accessible to whites, who comprised many of the genre’s initial wave of recording stars. With its spiritual home in Texas gin mills and lumber camps – rather than on the heavy-touring vaudeville circuit – boogie woogie perhaps remained a more “authentically” black working-class music for longer than its musical cousins, reflected by its strong African-American identity by the time it did receive recording industry exposure.

An early example of the boogie woogie rhythm in copyright is considered to be Artie Matthews’ Weary Blues, published in sheet music in 1915, and recorded by Louisiana 5 in 1919.

The first ‘complete’ boogie woogie record is most likely Jimmy Blythe’s Chicago Stomp in 1924.

Jimmy Blythe – Chicago Stomp

And the first boogie woogie hit was Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie by Pinetop Smith in 1928.

Pinetop Smith – Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie

Pinetop was a very influential but somewhat enigmatic figure. He worked with blues star Ma Rainey and shared a house with two other titans of boogie woogie piano – Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons – while the three were trying to make it in Chicago. Decades later, Ray Charles would reinterpret Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie for his signature song, Mess Around.

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However, no photos of Pinetop exist, and he died young – he was shot by accident in a fight that erupted in a Chicago dancehall. Pinetop was just 24. The incident occurred the day before a prestigious Vocalion recording session – an action that no doubt wrote a sizeable chunk of his oeuvre out of history – and is depicted by Robert Crumb in his illustration The Death of Pinetop Smith (up top).

Crumb wasn’t the only visual artist that had been inspired by Pinetop. Pop artist Claes Oldenburg outlines a proposal for a public monument to Pinetop in his book Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965-69. Oldenburg proposed that an electric wire run the length of North Avenue and Clark Street in Chicago, “along which at intervals runs an electric impulse colored blue so that thereʼs one blue line as far as the eye can see. Pinetop Smith invented boogie woogie blues at the corner of North and Larrabee, where he finally was murdered: the electric wire is ‘blue’ and dangerous.”

It’s an imaginative tribute, but concepts such as this and Oldenburg’s underground monument for JFK – “The corpse of the public figure is sealed in a plastic shape in the position of a well-known photograph of the subject. This shape is then suspended by a thin wire inside a colossal version of the same shape. The figure hangs upside-down and rotates slightly with the movement of the earth.” – arguably work more effectively in the imagination than they would in a public space.