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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

HOW BOOGIE WOOGIE BEGAN

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
In 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 makeshift bars.

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 turpentiners “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.
All 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.)
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