1939, African American historian E. Simms Campbell wrote, “Boogie
Woogie piano playing originated in the lumber and turpentine camps
of Texas and in the sporting houses of that state.”
Campbell called Boogie Woogie power piano playing “a fast, rolling
bass, giving the piece an undercurrent of tremendous power."
Before and after 1900, East
Texas was blanketed by vast virgin stands of longleaf pines dotted
with camps of men who spent most of their working hours harvesting
resin for the distillation of turpentine.
But at night and on weekends, the camps were infamous for drunken
brawls, card cheating, and murderous knife fights. And, somehow, in
the midst of this turbulence, a distinctly American form of music,
the Boogie Woogie, was developing. In the camps, there were always
barrelhouses, where barrels were made and filled with resin. On Saturday
nights, planks of lumber were placed across the barrels and became
Consequently, before Boogie Woogie began to make its way into music
history, the style of piano was also known as “barrelhouse piano.”
Dr. John Tennison of San
Antonio, founder of the Boogie Woogie Foundation, believes brothers
Hersal and George W. Thomas were responsible for bringing the Boogie
Woogie style from such barrelhouses in East
Texas to Houston, and
then to New Orleans and Chicago.
In Texas, the term “Booger Rooger,” was used by blues guitarist Blind
Lemon Jefferson as early as 1917-18. However, the earliest evidence
of “Boogie Woogie” as a descriptor of piano music was in the 1923
reprinting of George Thomas’ “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” in which
Clarence Williams wrote that, while Boogie Woogie originated in Texas,
it wasn’t called that until after George Thomas heard, further developed
the style, and first published “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” in 1916.
Chester Norris of Broaddus, a former turpentine camp boss, called
“the meanest people who ever lived.” He said, “They’d kill each other,
one or two every Saturday night. If they didn’t have gambling and
a barrel house to get drunk in, they’d move on to camps where they
did have ‘em.”
Norris said the black turpentine workers had a good feel for music.
“They could beat out music while they were putting the hoops on wooden
staves,” he said.
Early Boogie Woogie musicians were also inspired by the sounds of
steam locomotives rolling through the turpentine and lumber camps
of East Texas.
In a 1988 British television broadcast about Boogie Woogie, music
historian Paul Oliver said: “...the conductors were used to the logging
camp pianists clamoring aboard, telling them a few stories, jumping
off the train, getting into another logging camp, and playing again
for eight hours. In this way, the music got around, all through Texas,
and eventually...out of Texas.” Music historian Alan Lomax also wrote
in 1993: “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
players, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument
into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”
John Tennison, meanwhile, wants to set the record straight on East
Texas’ development of the Boogie Woogie with a book he is writing.
Things Historical December
5, 2005 Column
Published with permission
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman
of Lufkin is a past president of the Association and the author of
more than 30 books about East Texas.)