The Origins of Boogie Woogie

The Origins of Boogie Woogie

By Jack Canson

No one can know for certain, but probably the first time someone played a piano in a way that would ultimately be called boogie woogie music was during the 1870s in a logging camp barrel house somewhere near Caddo Lake and Marshall, Texas.

Pianos were often placed in these portable shacks to keep the loggers entertained at night and in the work camps.

Steam locomotives were a constant presence in the logging camps.  The sound of the huffing and clanking of powerful steam engines moving along iron rails no doubt influenced the piano players in these barrel houses.

Only recently emancipated, former slaves were still close to African musical roots that included polyrhythmic percussion, repetition, and aural mimicry.  In the slave quarters they often used handmade instruments such as drums, flutes, fiddles and banjos.

Prior to the end of the Civil War and Emancipation, African Americans had limited access to pianos.  By the 1870s, as the railroad began to displace the steamboats in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas, self-taught African American piano players invented new ways of using the left hand on the keyboard to create exciting sounds and rhythms.

The music and dancing in the barrel houses, at “sukey jumps,” and house parties soon found their way to Marshall, headquarters of the transcontinental Texas & Pacific Railway.

At first, piano players called their new style of playing “Fast Western” or “Fast Texas,” possibly because the first railroad in the Piney Woods was started at Caddo Lake by the short-lived Texas Western Railway Company.

Some began calling the music “barrelhouse” as it moved from the logging camps to the red light districts of the nearby railroad towns of Shreveport, Louisiana, and Texarkana on the Texas-Arkansas border. 

Riding the rails or sometimes given free passage in exchange for entertaining passengers, early boogie woogie players took the music to cities.  As the distinguished Library of Congress ethnomusicologist and collector 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 a BBC production about the origins of Boogie Woogie music, music historian Paul Oliver stated:      "…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, barrelhouse. 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 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."

Although they were no doubt preceded by many itinerant piano players who departed the logging camps for the cities, brothers George and Hersal Thomas were the most famous and influential musicians to take the music that arose in northeast Texas to such cities as New Orleans and Chicago. They were the first known to use musical notation of boogie woogie bass lines on sheet music, and were among the very first to publish. 

Older brother George and the Thomas family, originally from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, passed through Marshall on their way to Houston, where the much younger Hersal was born. When they relocated to New Orleans, they again passed through the Marshall or Shreveport railroad stations. The Thomas brothers and their family members acknowledged that they first heard  boogie woogie in Texas.

“The Fives” and another composition of the Thomas Brothers, “The Rocks,” became the litmus test for boogie woogie players throughout the country.  According to one old time player “if you didn’t know ‘The Fives’ and ‘The Rocks’ you’d best not even sit on the piano stool.”

Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was born in 1888 near the south shoreline of Caddo Lake along the Texas and Louisiana state line.  The man who grew up within walking distance of Swanson’s Landing, where the first locomotive in northeast Texas arrived by steamboat, spent much of his early years in Marshall and Shreveport before reaching world wide fame with “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” “Old Cotton Fields Back Home,” “In the Pines” and other iconic songs he created or rearranged. 

In several interviews over his life, Lead Belly reported that he first heard boogie woogie “around Caddo” in 1899. He also described how old time piano players along Shreveport’s infamous Fannin Street influenced his unique style of guitar playing.  "He played that Boogie Woogie.  That's what I wanted to play on guitar -- that piano bass.  I always wanted to play piano tunes.  I got it out of the barrelhouses on Fannin Street."

Although by no means the first to play, write, publish or record boogie woogie, Clarence “Pinetop” Smith was the first to write and record a song that used the words “boogie woogie” in the title.  “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” remains a favorite for performance and recording.

By the late 1930s, Boogie Woogie music made its way out of the red light districts and into the main stream.  Outstanding players such as Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson recorded and developed national reputations.  In 1936, Albert Ammons Rhythm Kings released the genre’s first million seller, “Swanee River Boogie.”


In 1938, Albert Ammons teamed up with the guitar-playing reigning queen of gospel, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, at the legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall.  Two songs performed by Tharpe and Ammons, “Rock Me” and “That’s All,” are believed to be the first recordings that contain all the musical elements of rock and roll.

Even as Boogie Woogie was planting the first seeds of Rock and Roll, the music had already deeply influenced jazz, gospel, and blues.

As San Francisco journalist Jim Harrington has written, “Boogie-woogie is all around us.  It's impacted and influenced so many different styles of music, from psychedelic rock and mainstream pop to Chicago blues and Western swing. A partial list of prominent artists who have borrowed from boogie-woogie would include blues great John Lee Hooker, country legend George Strait, pop star Christina Aguilera, rock pioneer Fats Domino, Haight-Ashbury heroes the Grateful Dead and even classical music composer Conlon Nancarrow.”

It was the Big Band era of the 1940’s that brought Boogie Woogie further into the national spotlight. And when American soldiers deployed for World War II, the music that was born in the Marshall, Texas area found its way around the world.

Innovation in Boogie Woogie continued, and never more so than in the brilliant work of East Texan Conlon Nancarrow.  A native of Texarkana, Texas, Nancarrow’s compositions were often so complex that few performers had the technical ability to master them. 

Nancarrow discovered he could present his original keyboard works best on the player piano.  He obtained a custom made manual punching machine to prepare his rolls and modified pianos to produce complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far faster than human hands.  In 1982, Nancarrow was one of the first recipients of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.  His fame and reputation continued to spread after his death in 1997.

In the 1950s and 1960s, two other musicians born and raised in the Birthplace of Boogie Woogie area made substantial marks on boogie and blues.  One was Floyd Dixon, whose classic hits “Wine, Wine, Wine” and “Hey, Bartender” were jukebox favorites for decades, was born and raised in Marshall and remained close to family and friends here all his life.  Dixon even wrote and recorded songs about his hometown with his “Doing the Town Blues” and “Marshall, Texas is My Home.”

Dixon often returned to Marshall with his old pal, Houston’s Amos Milburn, to play free Boogie Woogie shows for students at Pemberton High.  At one of these concerts, a teenage David Alexander Elam decided to become a professional musician.

The Last Living Link to the Originators of Boogie Woogie

David Alexander Elam was born in Shreveport, Louisiana.  He was still an infant when his family returned to Marshall.  His father, Tom Elam, worked as a mule skinner in logging camps and played boogie woogie guitar and piano.  David was named after Tom Elam’s good friend, a well-known Shreveport Boogie Woogie piano man, David Alexander, who performed as “Black Ivory King”  and was cited by Lead Belly as an early influence on his playing. 

Having been named after a major boogie player, and growing up with a father who played the music he learned in the logging camps, it would seem David Elam was destined to play Boogie Woogie. “I never thought about doing anything but playing music,” he told an interviewer a few months before he died. “But hearing Floyd and Amos play right there on that stage at my high school, that’s when I decided I was going to play the piano and that blues and boogie was what I was going to play.

It wasn’t easy, even though he had been musically inclined from his childhood.  He played drums in the Pemberton High band and sang in and helped manage the choir. But there was no piano in his home and his mother, Susy Hill Elam, was adamantly opposed to any music but church music.

“She called what my Dad and his friends played ‘the Devil’s music’ and they had to play it in the yard because she wouldn’t let them play in the house.”

But the teenage David Alexander Elam was determined.  He found that he could open the back door of a nearby church with his pocket knife.  When no one was around, he’d slip inside and try to learn to play on the church’s old upright.

David had only one piano lesson, a one hour session with a local teacher named Mrs. Ella Mae Williams.  “She taught me ‘middle C,’” he later recalled. “Once I understood that, I knew I could figure the rest of it out.”

And gradually, he did.  He learned to play some basic blues songs well enough that he and some of his classmates formed a combo that worked gigs in towns around Marshall.

The combo broke up in 1955, when David Elam left Marshall for Oakland, California.  Within a few years he was working regularly in the Bay Area and along the northwestern coast.  By the late 1960s, performing and recording as Dave Alexander, he was emerging as a major blues and boogie woogie artist. But even as his musical artistry flourished, his personal troubles compounded. Complications resulting from near fatal gunshot wounds, and the tragic loss of his brother Jimmy who was brutally murdered, triggered medical and emotional difficulties that would plague him the rest of his life.

His music, both his original compositions and his interpretations of standards, intensified.  “When I started out I was always trying to sound like someone else,” David remembered.  “I took a lot from Lloyd Glenn. I borrowed from this one and that one.  Then I began to realize I didn’t have to sound like nobody else. I just started doing my own thing.”

Performing as Dave Alexander, he established a reputation as a rare and unique talent.  In 1977, he was ranked by Keyboard magazine second only to Ray Charles as the greatest living blues pianist.  He performed with some of the most legendary artists in the blues and boogie fields.  But although he was known and admired by such people as legendary promoter Bill Graham and West Coast jazz and blues enthusiasts, wider fame eluded him and his personal difficulties intensified.

In 1978, Dave Alexander changed his name to Omar Sharriff and left the Bay area.  Except for occasional tours or festivals, he eked out a living performing in small clubs in northern California.  Over the next 30 years, in spite of several outstanding recordings and consistently stunning audiences with his piano wizardry, he had all but disappeared from the national and international blues and boogie woogie scene.

Following open heart surgery in 2006, Omar Sharriff struggled to survive in Sacramento, California. Confusion over his name change led many old fans to believe that Dave Alexander had died.  As Sacramento experienced an economic decline, the once lively night club scene evaporated and once bustling clubs became boarded-up relics.  “Used to be I could any night of the week just walk into two or three clubs and sit down at a piano and play for a while and before the night was over I’d make three or four hundred dollars. I’d get a royalty check from my records every few months, and I was getting by,” Omar recalled. “Then the clubs started shutting down and the DJs took over the ones that didn’t, and the internet come out where people could steal your music.”

By 2009, one of the greatest blues and boogie woogie artists on earth was in dire straits.  Except for an occasional gig playing for students at Sacramento State University or a tips-only night every now and then at a small bar, Omar Sharriff became an invisible man, confined to a tiny run-down apartment in a rough section of town.  Friends and admirers helped pay his rent and utilities.  His health worsened and he was dependent on painkillers and alcohol.

A Boogie Woogie Homecoming

In 2010, based on the research of Dr. John Tennison, the city of Marshall, Texas rediscovered its connection to the origination and emergence of Boogie Woogie Music.  After declaring itself the “Birthplace of Boogie Woogie,” the town decided to host a major concert to celebrate its exciting and important musical heritage.

In March, 2010, Dr. Tennison discovered that Dave Alexander/Omar Sharriff was living in Sacramento.  Tennison visited Sharriff in Sacramento and afterwards recommended that the city of Marshall hire him to perform in a concert to celebrate the city’s recent proclamation that Marshall, Texas is the Birthplace of Boogie Woogie.

In June, 2010, Omar Sharriff returned for the first time to the town he had left as David Alexander Elam 55 years earlier.  He was the featured performer for a Boogie Woogie Homecoming Concert.

Sharriff’s performance before a full house electrified his old hometown. 

Invited back for a Christmas concert with the legendary Bob Seeley and Bob Baldori, Sharriff again demonstrated that he was one of the greatest blues and boogie piano players alive.

In February 2011, Omar Sharriff relocated to Marshall as artist-in-residence and official Ambassador for the Birthplace of Boogie Woogie.  The man who many regarded as the last living link to the generation that originated Boogie Woogie music in the Marshall, Texas area spent the last year of his life in the town where he grew up. Even though health problems prevented him from accepting offers for European tours and other engagements, blues and boogie fans around the world became acquainted again with the music of one the great piano masters of all time. 

His return to his hometown helped Marshall establish a strong and lasting connection to its unique role in the development of the revolutionary and influential music the world calls Boogie Woogie.

Following his death January 8, 2012, the people of Marshall honored their Boogie Woogie ambassador with a memorial service at the Marshall Civic Center where his life and music was celebrated by many of the musicians who had played with Omar in Marshall.  In August, 2012, Dave Alexander/Omar Sharriff was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

*This article is based on original scholarship of Dr. John Tennison and additional research of Nancy Canson.

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