No Beginning, Middle, or
End: The Relative Lack of Structure in the Earliest Boogie Woogies
by John T. Tennison, MD (AKA Nonjohn) -- April 9, 2011
A common misconception that I have encountered among even modern-day professional players of Boogie Woogie is the mistaken assumption that the earliest Boogie Woogie performances had the same degree of structure that is heard in the most well known Boogie Woogie recordings from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. Instead, there is a large body of evidence to indicate a relative lack of structure in the earliest or most primitive way of playing Boogie Woogie.
Another frequently encountered misconception is that Boogie Woogie has to be suggestive of, or derivative of, the style of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, or Meade Lux Lewis to be "authentic." Although it is certainly reasonable to use the label "classic" or even "traditional" to describe Boogie Woogies played in the style of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, or Meade Lux Lewis, it is disrespectful and false to claim that Boogie Woogies played in less structured ways are in any way less "authentic." If anything, such unstructured ways of playing are more "authentically" close to the improvisational way Boogie Woogie was first played by the untrained individuals who invented Boogie Woogie. Moreover, in the modern sense, what is called "improvisational" is actually considerably structured, in that fixed and predictable chord changes, fixed meter, and fixed tempos are often used.
In general, it can be said that the earliest Boogie Woogie players played to create a continuous and exciting texture that frequently, if at all, did not have a discernable beginning, middle, or end in the way seen in the fixed structure of many modern ways of playing Boogie Woogie, and as seen in the fixed structure caused by having made an audio recording, especially one that becomes popular and gets listened to over and over. That is, even an audio recording of a what was originally a highly unstructured improvisation becomes fixed and predictable, merely as a result of the recording having been made. Subsequently, other musicians will often try to emulate a recording of what was originally a highly improvisational performance.
Even in the later, more-structured "classic" era of Boogie Woogie, continued evidence of early Boogie Woogie's non-ending, continuous quality can be found in the recording of Meade Lux Lewis. Specifically, on page 1 of Chapter 1 ("Compositional Imperatives: Mondrian and Boogie-woogie") of the 2006 book, "Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture," author David P. Brown writes about Boogie Woogie's "basic character:"
"It's basic character is evident in 'Lux's Boogie,' a piece by Lewis that could be, given its structure, continuous in form. Its recorded length was determined more by the limits of available technology than by an implicit progression in the music that would build to a concluding resolution. Resolutions instead recur at micro-levels."
Evidence for a relative lack of structure in Boogie Woogie performance can be found in
many accounts. Here are just a few examples:
On page 8 of Living Blues magazine, #15, 1973-74, in his article "The Boogie Pianist," author Eric Kris writes:
"It is easiest to begin with an examination of the most structured styles, since the informal folk traditions have a way of complicating things. Skip James, for example, often used an 11 1/2 bar chorus; quite a difficult thing to teach or imitate with any authenticity!"
In his article, "The Boogie Pianist," Eric Kris recognizes 9 different subtypes of blues piano playing styles, each of which (with the exception of formal "Ragtime") can potentially contain elements of or also formally be Boogie Woogie:
1. Ragtime (of which Kris gives "Jelly Roll Morton" as an example)
2. Primitive Barrelhouse (of which Kris gives "Speckled Red" as an example)
3. Sophisticated Barrelhouse (of which Kris gives "Roosevelt Sykes" as an example)
4. Texas Barrelhouse (of which Kris gives "Robert Shaw" as an example)
5. Early Boogie (of which Kris gives "Cripple Clarence Loften" as an example)
6. Classic Boogie Woogie (of which Kris gives "Meade Lux Lewis" as an example)
7. 50s Jump Piano (of which Kris gives "Sunnyland Slim" as an example)
8. Contemporary Piano Blues (of which Kris gives "Otis Spann" as an example)
9. Regional Piano Styles (of which Kris gives "Skip James" as an example)
These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive of each other.
Kris's "Regional Piano Styles" category is described as "a morass of exceptions and personal idiosyncrasies." This description is almost certainly applicable to the earliest Boogie Woogie performances by untrained musicians from the early 1870s. Indeed, it is precisely because of these exceptions, idiosyncrasies, and lack of training that many new musical forms, including Boogie Woogie, were created in the first place.
Many musicians find it difficult to accompany Boogie Woogie players who play in unstructured and unpredictable ways. Moreover, this difficulty is not true only for Boogie Woogie piano players, but has also been documented in other attempts at accompaniment. For example Lonnie Johnson spoke to Paul Oliver of his difficulty in accompanying Texas Alexander, saying:
"He was a very difficult singer to accompany...." and "He was liable to jump a bar, or five bars, or anything....When you been out there with him, you done nine days work in one!" (cited in liner by Chris Smith in Lonnie Johnson, Volume 2, August 13, 1926 to August 12, 1927, Document Records, DOCD-5064)
In his book, "Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery," 1970, Studio Vista Publishing, in addition to focusing specifically on Little Brother Montgomery, author Karl Gert zur Heide includes an Introduction in his book in which he makes various points that are applicable to many blues and Boogie Woogie players besides just Little Brother Montgomery. Some important points made by Karl Gert zur Heide include the following:
In his Introduction (page 9), Karl Gert zur Heide writes the following:
"Lack of factual knowledge favours the growth of legends, and information on black piano players from the Deep South is scarce. Literally thousands of them went unrecorded; still, an amazing body of their work has been preserved by various media."
It is instructive to remember that the thousands who were not recorded far outnumbered those who were recorded. Moreover, the Boogie Woogie players who were recorded and who became famous were not necessarily the best players, but were often recorded merely as a result of the arbitrariness of the location of recording studios or as a result of the location where mobile recording units had been set up.
For example, when discussing piano performances in barrelhouses at logging camps on page 87 in the chapter "Struttin' That Thing," of his 1969 book, "The Story of the Blues," Paul Oliver writes:
"As the forests were reduced to stump lands, the camps retreated deeper into the woods; their impermanence, their defenses against intruders all discouraged the talent scouts and there was little attempt on the part of the recording companies to seek out the pianists of the camps."
Moreover, there are numerous examples of
claims of extraordinary ability in Boogie Woogie players, and musicians more
generally, who never got recorded. One of the most striking examples is
Roadmaster (real name unknown), who performed in the area of Marshall,
Texas, and who has been described by Floyd Dixon as the
best pianist Dixon ever heard, and who rivaled, if not surpassed, even
Art Tatum. Another example of a pianist who never recorded when he was probably
at his peak of ability, was Peck Kelley of Houston Texas, who did not get
recorded until he was well past his prime, and even then, the recordings made were
technically of rather poor quality.
Another example of seemingly unrecorded influential pianists comes in the example of two pianists who have been cited as having been important influences on pianist Lloyd Glenn. These include Will Frazier and Will Woolrich, who, among "8 or 10" pianists in San Antonio, Texas, Glenn cites as being the basis for his style. Among these, Will Frazier appears to be the single most influential person specifically cited by Glenn.
There are countless other oral histories documenting musical virtuosity of unrecorded Boogie Woogie players, many of whose names (or at least real names) will never be known.
In a powerful corroboration of the lack of structure of early Boogie Woogie, Karl Gert zur Heide writes the following on page 11 of his Introduction:
"In his childhood, boogie certainly did not behave according to European conventions. The archaic manifestations of Afro-American music have a modal character and, in solo forms like boogie, no continuous metre. The latter is a result of linear thinking which disregards harmony in an academic sense. In groups of several players, this conception can lead to heterophony with strict metre; a good example is archaic jazz. Even when employing a certain chord sequence a 'country' bluesman would make the changes when he felt like it. Used to playing alone, he shows the tendency to corrupt the harmonic and metric scheme when performing with a band. 'He's breaking time,' a trained musician would say."
This description by Karl Gert zur Heide of bluesmen making chord changes "when he felt like it" is fully consistent with Lee Ree Sullivan's description of the highly improvisational way that Boogie Woogies were being played in Liberty Eylau community near Texarkana, Texas, at least as late as the 1950s.
Another correlation between the relatively unstructured early Boogie Woogies and the later more-structured Boogie Woogies is the fact that the more structured forms tended to occur in urban settings, rather than in the relatively more rural settings where Boogie Woogie originated. Indeed, the greater "civilized" social structure of the large cities could very well have been a bias that constrained Boogie Woogie into its more structured forms recorded in the 1930s and 1940s by those who wanted to imitate, or at least approximate, performances of the earlier Boogie Woogie players. In a discussion of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Palmer made statements about rural bluesmen that are also just as true for and corroborate the limited structure in the earliest Boogie Woogies, which also occurred in relatively unstructured, less "civilized" rural settings. Specifically, in "Black Snake Moan: The History of Texas Blues," (page 94, Guitar World, September, 1996).
"Many rural bluesmen habitually drop a beat or a bar or add a half-bar or more to the standard twelve-bar verse, resulting in actual verse lengths of twelve and a half, thirteen, or thirteen and a half bars -- often in the same tune. On first impression, Jefferson's playing was even more anarchic than that. While singing, he would strum quietly chords or softly mark the beat, but his guitar fills, generally tumbling, single-note lines inserted between vocal verses, were liable to meander almost anywhere. Calt describes these fills as 'impromptu-sounding riffs of no fixed order or duration.'' The edge-of-your-seat approach to improvisation is what makes Jefferson classics like 'Match Box Blues,' 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,' and 'That Black Snake Moan' perennially rewarding and surprising."
The fact that Sammy Price has indicated that Jefferson's "booga rooga" style of guitar playing was the basis for Pine Top Smith's Boogie Woogie bass figures suggests an intimate connection between Jefferson's relatively unstructured way of playing and that of the earliest Boogie Woogie players.
It also appears that, even when rural settings are compared to each other, Texas was associated with less structured blues forms than other rural settings where blues was played. For example, in his article "What Is American Music?," (Down Beat, February 27, 1975) Robert Palmer wrote:
"The Texas school (metrically free, in contrast to the more rigorously structured Mississippi styles), Georgia school (extremely lyrical blues, twelve-string guitars), and many others have been preserved on 78 rpm records, most of which are now available on reissue LPs."
Palmer also describes another contrast between Texas blues and Delta blues, which might very well be causally connected with the relative lack of structure in Texas blues. Specifically, in "Black Snake Moan: The History of Texas Blues," (page 102, Guitar World, September, 1996), Palmer states:
"Delta blues is a kind of sacred music, opposed to the church but espousing its own African-rooted spiritual values. In Texas, on the other hand, blues tends to be resolutely, unapologetically secular, sensuous, even carnal -- like rock and roll."
Moreover, Robert Palmer's comments are consistent with the idea that the relatively less-structured and "secular, sensuous, even carnal" Texas blues styles were occurring at least as early as, and likely not as a derivative of performance styles that were occurring in the Mississippi River Delta region. Specifically, in his article, "Black Snake Moan: The History of Texas Blues," (page 87, Guitar World, September, 1996), Palmer states:
"No matter what you may have heard or read, nobody knows where the blues began -- or even if it did begin in a particular place, as opposed to springing up in several places more or less simultaneously. The Mississippi Delta is often credited with being the 'cradle of the blues,' but there is evidence that the music was flourishing in Texas at least as early as it was in Mississippi. When asked for his opinion, pioneering blues and folk scholar Alan Lomax used to quote a traditional, anonymous lyric he had encountered early in his travels: 'The blues came from Texas, loping like a mule."
In the same article, "Black Snake Moan: The History of Texas Blues," (page 89, Guitar World, September, 1996), Palmer also makes the following comments about Texas blues and Boogie Woogie:
"Texas's blues pedigree is unsurpassed and the Lone Star state, along with its bordering territories (parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma), also played a formative role in the development of boogie-woogie, the pounding, rocking eight-to-the-bar rhythmic foundation for all subsequent developments in rock & roll. The origins of boogie are generally attributed to anonymous black pianists who entertained workers in the isolated, backwoods lumber and turpentine camps of eastern Texas and western Louisiana, probably around the turn of the century."
However, the cumulative evidence that I have collected points to an even earlier origin for Boogie Woogie (the early 1870s), with Marshall, Texas at the geographical center of gravity of those earliest Boogie Woogie performances.
In addition to commenting on the relative
lack of structure in the earliest Boogie Woogies,
Karl Gert zur Heide also addresses geographical origins of Boogie Woogie
briefly, when he writes the following on page 11 of his Introduction to "Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery":
"The earliest reports hint at an origin somewhere between New Orleans and Dallas, Memphis and Houston, but Mississippi and Alabama also had strong boogie traditions."
Karl Gert zur Heide's descriptions of "an origin somewhere between New Orleans and Dallas, Memphis and Houston" is fully consistent with my conclusion that Marshall, Texas is the most probable municipal geographical center of gravity of the earliest Boogie Woogie performances, especially when one considers the earliest railroad corridors that created a connection between the four cities of New Orleans, Dallas, Memphis, and Houston. For example, the Texas and Pacific Railroad was the primary railroad corridor between "New Orleans and Dallas," and the earliest primary Railroad Corridor between "Memphis and Houston" included the Texas and Pacific tracks between Texarkana and Marshall, Texas, and the Texas and Pacific tracks between Marshall and Longview, Texas. Moreover the common track between the Dallas-New Orleans corridor and the Memphis-Houston corridor was the Texas and Pacific track between Marshall and Longview, Texas.
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