railroads and fast texas

The Republic of Texas joined the Union in 1845 as a slave state, and a flood of migrants quickly started coming in from other states such as Tennessee and Alabama, many bringing their slaves with them. The northeastern part of the state, known as the “piney woods,” was particularly attractive for such newcomers because of its logging industry, which was providing building materials for a rapidly expanding population. When steam locomotives were introduced in the 1850s, job opportunities abounded for the new railroad industry in Texas. Where the railroads went (toward the growing towns of Houston, Galveston, Austin and Dallas), civilization followed. So did the chugging and whistling sounds of the newfangled steam locomotives that were mimicked by black (and some white) singers and piano players. Pianos had been brought into the area by steamships plying the great Mississippi and Red Rivers.

Texas was home to an environment that fostered the creation of “fast Western” music, which later became known as boogie-woogie. The lumber, cattle, turpentine, and oil industries were 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, who recorded early blues songs for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and ‘40s 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 [unskilled] black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

One of the best known of these “train songs” was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s 1934 version of “The Midnight Special,” recorded at Angola Prison in Louisiana. The hero aspect of this blues song was not so much about the escaping prisoners from a Sugarland (near Houston) prison, but more about the train itself. The “ever-loving light” of the train was a potent symbol of salvation and absolution from sins for these escapees.

“Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table, you see the same old thing,
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan,
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.”

“Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine an ever lovin’ light on me.”

Master of the 12-string guitar Lead Belly (1888-1949) sang and recorded several other blues songs concerning trains, including “Rock Island Line (1937) and “Leavin’ on the Morning Train Blues” (1938), both about trains entering and leaving New Orleans. In the former song, Lead Belly imagined a scenario in which a depot agent is about to make an oncoming freight train go “in the hole,” i.e., wait on a side track until a higher-priority train passes. The train engineer signals that he has livestock aboard by using his whistle, suggesting one of the many creative ways train sounds were used in those days. Lead Belly’s version of “Rock Island Line” was echoed by British singer Lonnie Donegan in 1954, which started the “skiffle” craze there and thus helped lead to the development of English rock and roll in the 1960s.

Many blues experts have concluded that the railroad-inspired “fast Western” (also called fast Texas) was the first term by which boogie-woogie was known. During the early days of blues development all Negro piano players in Houston, Dallas and Galveston played that way. This style was 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, explains the website Nonjohn.com.

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 [music style of rowdy pubs with beer barrels on the dance floor]. 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.” The song was also recorded in 1930 by “the empress of the blues” Bessie Smith. Her version goes like this:

“Old New Orleans is a great big old southern town, where hospitality you will surely find,
The population there is very, very fair, with ev’rything they do,
White folks do it too, they have a dance surely it’s something rare there,
Glide, slide, prance, dance, hop, stop,
Take it easy honey!

“I can never git tired of dancin’ those Hop Scop Blues,
Once more you glide, slide, prance, dance,
The Hop Scop Blues will make you do a lovely shake,
They’ll make you feel so grand when you join hand in hand,
I’ll never git tired of dancin’ those Hop Scop Blues,
Once more you glide, slide, prance, I said dance, oh, hop, now stop,
Take it easy…”

Lonnie Donegan sings “Rock Island Line”