The origin of the term boogie-woogie is unknown, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word is a reduplication of boogie, which was used for "rent parties" as early as 1913.
John Tennison, a San Antonio psychiatrist, pianist, and musicologist, 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" (Mbuki: "to take off in flight"; Mvuki: "to dance wildly, as if to shake off one's clothes").
The meanings of these terms are consistent with the percussiveness, dancing, and uninhibited behaviors historically associated with boogie-woogie music. The African origin of these terms is also consistent with evidence that the music originated among newly emancipated African-Americans. An opinion piece eulogizing Fats Domino suggested the musical form is derived from brothel piano playing.
In sheet music literature prior to 1900, there are at least three examples of the word "boogie" in music titles in the archives of the Library of Congress. In 1901, "Hoogie Boogie" appeared in the title of published sheet music, the first known instance where a redoubling of the word "Boogie" occurs in the title of published music. (In 1880, "The Boogie Man" had occurred as the title of published music.) The first use of "Boogie" in a recording title appears to be a "blue cylinder" recording made by Edison of the "American Quartet" performing "That Syncopated Boogie Boo" in 1913.
"Boogie" next occurs in the title of Wilbur Sweatman's April 1917 recording of "Boogie Rag". However none of these sheet music or audio recording examples contain the musical elements that would identify them as boogie-woogie.
The 1919 recordings (two takes) of "Weary Blues" by the Louisiana Five contained the same boogie-woogie bass figure as appears in the 1915 "Weary Blues" sheet music by Artie Matthews. Tennison has recognized these 1919 recordings as the earliest sound recordings which contain a boogie-woogie bass figure.
Blind Lemon Jefferson used the term "Booga Rooga" to refer to a guitar bass figure that he used in "Match Box Blues". Jefferson may have heard the term from Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, who played frequently with Jefferson. Lead Belly, who was born in Mooringsport, La., and grew up in Harrison County, Texas, in the community of Leigh, said he first heard boogie-woogie piano in the Caddo Lake area of northeast Texas in 1899. He said it influenced his guitar-playing. Lead Belly also said he heard boogie-woogie piano in the Fannin Street district of Shreveport, Louisiana. Some of the players he heard were Dave "Black Ivory King" Alexander, or possibly another Dave Alexander known as "Little Dave Alexander" and a piano player called Pine Top (not Pine Top Smith, who was not born until 1904, but possibly Pine Top Williams or Pine Top Hill.) Lead Belly was among the first guitar-players to adapt the rolling bass of boogie-woogie piano.
Texas, as the state of origin, became reinforced by Jelly Roll Morton, who said he heard the boogie piano style there early in the 20th century, as did Leadbelly and Bunk Johnson, according to Rosetta Reitz.
The first time the modern-day spelling of "boogie-woogie" was used in a title of a published audio recording of music appears to be Pine Top Smith's December 1928 recording titled "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie", a song whose lyrics contain dance instructions to "boogie-woogie".
Earliest attempts to determine a geographical origin for boogie-woogie
The earliest documented inquiries into the geographical origin of boogie-woogie occurred in the late 1930s when oral histories from the oldest living Americans of both African and European descent revealed a broad consensus that boogie-woogie piano was first played in Texas in the early 1870s. Additional citations place the origins of boogie-woogie in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas. "The first Negroes who played what is called boogie-woogie, or house-rent music, and attracted attention in city slums where other Negroes held jam sessions, were from Texas. And all the Old-time Texans, black or white, are agreed that boogie piano players were first heard in the lumber and turpentine camps, where nobody was at home at all. The style dates from the early 1870s."
"Fast Western" connection to Marshall & Harrison County, Texas
Max Harrison (in the book Jazz edited by Hentoff and McCarthy in 1959) and Mack McCormick (in the liner notes to his Treasury of Field Recordings, Vol. 2) concluded that "Fast Western" was the first term by which boogie-woogie was known.
Also, "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."
According to Tennison, when he interviewed Lee Ree Sullivan in Texarkana in 1986, Sullivan told him that he was familiar with "Fast Western" and "Fast Texas" as terms to refer to boogie-woogie in general, but not to denote the use of any specific bass figure used in boogie-woogie. Sullivan said that "Fast Western" and "Fast Texas" were terms that derived from the "Texas Western" Railroad Company of Harrison County. The company was formed on February 16, 1852, but did not build track from Swanson's Landing at Caddo Lake to Marshall, Texas, until after changing its name to "Southern Pacific" on August 16, 1856. This Texas-based "Southern Pacific" was the first "Southern Pacific" railroad, and was not connected to the more well known "Southern Pacific" originating in San Francisco, California. The Texas-based Southern Pacific Railroad was bought out by the newly formed Texas and Pacific Railway on March 21, 1872.
Although the "Texas Western" Railroad Company changed its name to "Southern Pacific", Sullivan said the name "Texas Western" stuck among the slaves who constructed the first railway hub in northeast Texas from Swanson's Landing to the city of Marshall.
Railroad connection to Marshall & Harrison County, Texas
A key to identifying the geographical area in which boogie-woogie originated is understanding the relationship of boogie-woogie music with the steam railroad, both in the sense of how the music might have been influenced by sounds associated with the arrival of steam locomotives as well as the cultural impact the sudden emergence of the railroad might have had.
The railroad did not "arrive" in northeast Texas as an extension of track from existing lines from the north or the east. Rather, the first railroad locomotives and iron rails were brought to northeast Texas via steamboats from New Orleans via the Mississippi and Red Rivers and Caddo Lake to Swanson's Landing, located on the Louisiana/Texas state line. Beginning with the formation of the Texas Western Railroad Company in Marshall, Texas, through the subsequent establishment in 1871 of the Texas and Pacific Railway company, which located its headquarters and shops there, Marshall was the only railroad hub in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas at the time the music developed. The sudden appearance of steam locomotives, and the building of mainline tracks and tap lines to serve logging operations was pivotal to the creation of the music in terms of its sound and rhythm. It was also crucial to the rapid migration of the musical style from the rural barrel house camps to the cities and towns served by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company.
"Although the neighboring states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri would also produce boogie-woogie players and their boogie-woogie tunes, and despite the fact that Chicago would become known as the center for this music through such pianists as Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, and Meade "Lux" Lewis, Texas was home to an environment that fostered creation of boogie-style: the lumber, cattle, turpentine, and oil industries, all served by an expanding railway system from the northern corner of East Texas to the Gulf Coast and from the Louisiana border to Dallas and West Texas." Alan Lomax, wrote: "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."
In the 1986 television broadcast of Britain's The South Bank Show about boogie-woogie, music historian Paul Oliver noted: "Now 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, barrel house. In this way the music got around—all through Texas—and eventually, of course, out of Texas. Now when this new form of piano music came from Texas, it moved out towards Louisiana. It was brought by people like George W. Thomas, an early pianist who was already living in New Orleans by about 1910 and writing "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues", which really has some of the characteristics of the music that we came to know as Boogie."
Paul Oliver also wrote that George W. Thomas "composed the theme of the New Orleans Hop Scop Blues – in spite of its title – based on the blues he had heard played by the pianists of East Texas." On February 12, 2007, Oliver confirmed to John Tennison that it was Sippie Wallace who told Oliver that performances by East Texas pianists had formed the basis for George Thomas's "Hop Scop Blues".
George Thomas and his brother Hersal Thomas migrated from Texas to Chicago, and brought boogie-woogie with them. They were an immense influence on other pianists, including Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and many others. Many elements that we now know as elements of boogie-woogie are present in Hersal and George Thomas' "The Fives". According to Tennison, "although some Boogie Woogie bass figures were present in prior sheet music, the thing that made 'The Fives' so special was the greater amount and variety of Boogie Woogie bass figures that were present in the music as compared to Boogie Woogie bass figures that had been present in previously published sheet music, such as the 1915 "Weary Blues" by Artie Matthews.
"Albert Ammons and Meade 'Lux' Lewis claim that 'The Fives,' [copyrighted in 1921 and published in 1922] the Thomas brothers' musical composition, deserves much credit for the development of modern boogie-woogie. During the 1920s, many pianists featured this number as a 'get off' tune and in the variations played what is now considered boogie-woogie."
Indeed, all modern boogie-woogie bass figures can be found in "The Fives", including swinging, walking broken-octave bass, shuffled (swinging) chord bass (of the sort later used extensively by Ammons, Lewis, and Clarence "Pine Top" Smith), and the ubiquitous "oom-pah" ragtime stride bass.
T&P stops associated with names for boogie-woogie left-hand bass lines
Early generation boogie-woogie players recognized basic boogie-woogie bass lines by geographical locations with which they associated them. Lee Ree Sullivan identified a number of these left hand bass lines for Tennison in 1986. From the primitive to the complex, those identifications indicate that the most primitive form of the music was associated with Marshall, Texas – and that the left-hand bass lines grew more complex as the distance from Marshall increased.
The most primitive of these left hand bass lines is the one that was called "the Marshall". It is a simple, four-beats-to-the-bar figure The second-most primitive bass-line, called "the Jefferson", is also four-beats-to-the-bar, but goes down in pitch on the last note in each four-note cycle. It has been suggested that this downturn in pitch reveals a possible New Orleans influence. Jefferson, Texas, about 17 miles north of Marshall, was the westernmost port of a steamboat route that connected to New Orleans via Caddo Lake, the Red River, and the Mississippi River.
The remaining bass lines rise in complexity with distance from Marshall, Texas as one would expect variations and innovations would occur as the territory in which the music has been introduced expands.
Indications that Marshall & Harrison County Texas is the most likely point of origination of boogie-woogie
In January 2010, John Tennison summarized his research into the origins of boogie-woogie with the conclusion that Marshall, Texas is "the municipality whose boundaries are most likely to encompass or be closest to the point on the map which is the geographic center of gravity for all instances of Boogie Woogie performance between 1870 and 1880".
Tennison states: "Given the account of Elliot Paul, and given that Lead Belly witnessed boogie-woogie in 1899 in the Arklatex; and given the North to South migration of the Thomas family; and given the Texas & Pacific headquarters in Marshall in the early 1870s; and given that Harrison County had the largest slave population in the state of Texas; and given the fact that the best-documented and largest-scale turpentine camps in Texas did not occur until after 1900 in Southeast Texas, it is most probable that boogie-woogie spread from Northeast to Southeast Texas, rather than from Southeast to Northeast Texas, or by having developed diffusely with an even density over all of the Piney Woods of East Texas. It would not be surprising if there was as yet undiscovered evidence of the earliest boogie-woogie performances buried (metaphorically or literally) in Northeast Texas."
On May 13, 2010, the Marshall City Commission enacted an official declaration naming Marshall as the "birthplace" of boogie-woogie music, and embarked on a program to encourage additional historical research and to stimulate interest in and appreciation for the early African-American culture in northeast Texas that played a vital role in creating boogie-woogie music.
The city of Marshall, Texas is committed to cooperating with any and all efforts to unearth boogie-woogie history and to honor, celebrate, and re-create the vibrant environment that was catalytic to the creation of the most entertaining, revolutionary, and influential of all American musical forms.
"Birthplace of Boogie Woogie" was registered by the Marshall Convention and Visitors on June 21, 2011 (registration number 3,980,563; Ser. No. 85-064,442, Filed 6-16-2010).
Development of modern boogie-woogie
A song titled "Tin Roof Blues" was published in 1923 by the Clarence Williams Publishing Company. Compositional credit is given to Richard M. Jones. The Jones composition uses a boogie bass in the introduction with some variation throughout. In February 1923, Joseph Samuels' Tampa Blue Jazz Band recorded the George W. Thomas number "The Fives" for Okeh Records, considered the first example of jazz band boogie-woogie.
Jimmy Blythe's recording of "Chicago Stomps" from April 1924 is sometimes called the first complete boogie-woogie piano solo record.
The first boogie-woogie hit was "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith, recorded in 1928 and first released in 1929. Smith's record was the first boogie-woogie recording to be a commercial hit, and helped establish "boogie-woogie" as the name of the style. It was closely followed by another example of pure boogie-woogie, "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis, recorded by Paramount Records(1927), first released in March 1930. The performance emulated a railroad trip, perhaps lending credence to the "train theory".
Late 1930s: Carnegie Hall
Boogie-woogie gained further public attention in 1938 and 1939, thanks to the From Spirituals to Swing concerts in Carnegie Hall promoted by record producer John Hammond. The concerts featured Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson performing Turner's tribute to Johnson, "Roll 'Em Pete", as well as Meade Lux Lewis performing "Honky Tonk Train Blues" and Albert Ammons playing "Swanee River Boogie". "Roll 'Em Pete" is now considered to be an early rock and roll song.
These three pianists, with Turner, took up residence in the Café Society night club in New York City where they were popular with the sophisticated set. They often played in combinations of two and even three pianos, creating a richly textured piano performance.
After the Carnegie Hall concerts, it was only natural for swing bands to incorporate the boogie-woogie beat into some of their music. Tommy Dorsey's band recorded an updated version of "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie" in 1938, which (as "Boogie Woogie") became a hit in 1943 and 1945, and was to become the swing era's second best seller, only second to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood". In 1939, at the suggestion of Columbia Records producer John Hammond, Harry James recorded the singles Boo-Woo and Woo-Woo with Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Also from 1939, the Will Bradley orchestra had a string of boogie hits such as the original versions of "Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)" and "Down the Road a Piece", both 1940, and "Scrub Me Mamma With A Boogie Beat", in 1941. The Andrews Sisters sang some boogies, and after the floodgates were open, it was expected that every big band should have one or two boogie numbers in their repertoire.