boogie-woogie bounce

The railroad-inspired fast Texas sounds of the “piney woods” logging camps did not stay put for long. As cash-strapped blues musicians hopped trains headed for yet another logging camp, the music began to migrate to the east (Louisiana) and north to such blues music locations along train lines as St. Louis and Chicago. Laws in Texas at that time made it imperative for freight and other trains to stop at busy intersections of train tracks and major roads, so hoboes and poor musicians could easily “catch” a train ride any time they wanted. All they had to do was watch out for the railroad police who were always on the lookout for illegal passengers.

As the music moved out of Texas, it began to be melded with other forms, especially the musical genres that relied heavily on horns and drums to produce danceable sounds. The big band jazz sound of small orchestras led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller was becoming popular by the mid-1930s. Fast-stepping, athletic dances such as Western swing and the Lindy Hop were all the rage, as was the popular and feisty “jump blues” [hard R&D] of Louis Jordan. Chicago had become the mecca for such popular genres and dance moves as it had already become a favorite destination for blacks fleeing persecution under the strict Jim Crow laws and black codes of the segregated South. At that time (1930s), the streets of Chicago featured an open freedom for blacks found nowhere in the deep South.

So, what do you get when you cross Western swing with blues piano? The answer is boogie-woogie, which is both a musical genre and a dance style. Others would argue that boogie-woogie is a lively form of rock and roll that is based on the blues. It is probably impossible to prove that either argument is right or wrong. But both sides would agree that when boogie-woogie music starts to play, it is hard not to get up and dance to that beat which features a rolling bass sound and lively backbeat. Boogie-woogie piano players use their left hand to produce the rolling bass sound on their keyboards while their right hand provides the fast-moving rhythms of the boogie-woogie beat. Some blues players like Blind Lemon Jefferson even managed to duplicate the rolling bass sound with their guitars. 

The expression “boogie” probably derives from the West African words booga (drum beat) or bogi (dance). One of the first boogie-woogie songs ever produced was one initially recorded on December 29, 1928 in Chicago by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith (1904-29) on Vocalion Records. It was called, not surprisingly, “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie.” Released in March 1929 as a piano rag, the song cemented boogie-woogie as the name of its entire genre, explains Wikipedia. Many blues researchers consider this song to be the first rock and roll recording, although rock pioneers like Little Richard would no doubt disagree.

The song’s lyrics are exclusively instructions to dancers in the audience, as was traditional at the time. Musically, it is strikingly similar to the previous year’s hit, “Honky Tonk Train Blues” by Meade Lux Lewis (1905-64), which also went on to become a blues standard, re-recorded by many later artists. A coincidence? Maybe not, as Lewis and Smith then lived in the same boarding house. Lyrics to Pinetop’s song go like this:

“Now listen here all of you, this is my Pinetop Trouble,
I want everybody to dance ’em just like I tell you,
And when I say ‘Hold yourself’ everybody get ready to stop,
And when I’ve said ‘Stop,’ don’t move a peg,
And when I say ‘Get It’, everybody do a boogie-woogie,

Now that’s what I’m talkin ‘bout.”

Pinetop Smith could have had a long and productive career had he not met a tragic end at the young age of 25; he was shot to death in a Chicago dance hall. Within a few years, some of his cuts were re-released on the Brunswick label and in 1938 Tommy Dorsey came out with a big band, piano version of Pinetop’s biggest hit. That version has influenced pianists ever since. The great jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton said he heard the boogie piano style in Texas early in the 20th century, as did Lead Belly and Bunk Johnson. Others claim that the style dates back to the 1870s, when black musicians jammed together in order to collect enough money to pay their monthly rents.

As the 1930s passed into history, the dark clouds of international war were forming. Before one could sing a few bars of “Over There,” a US government propaganda song designed to inspire courage for WWI military personnel, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, plunging America into WWII in the Pacific. Ironically, the war produced what is called the “Boogie-Woogie Bounce,” a strong comeback of the music that derived from Texas. Although not in the same class as “Over There,” WWII’s theme song became “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,” which inspired a generation of jitterbuggers.

This very danceable song, which definitely lifted the morale of the troops, is an upbeat ditty about a fictional famous trumpeter from Chicago who gets drafted into the army and becomes his company’s (B) bugler. “It turns out, however, that he can’t play a lick without a band behind him. So a sympathetic captain transfers in some hip players, and from then on, Company B swings into its daily routines,” writes Carl Zebrowski in an article called “The Boogie Woogie Bounce” in the America in WWII blog. The lyrics go like this:

“He was a famous trumpet man from out Chicago way,
He had a boogie style that no one else could play,
He was the top man at his craft,
But then his number came up, and he was gone with the draft,
He’s in the army now, a-blowin’ reveille,
He’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B.”

“They made him blow a bugle for his Uncle Sam,
It really brought him down because he couldn’t jam,
The captain seemed to understand,
Because the next day the cap’ went out and drafted a band,
And now the company jumps when he plays reveille,
He’s the boogie-woogie bugle boy of Company B.”

The Andrews Sisters sing their megahit WWII classic “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy”

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