Author: Berlin, Edward A
Date published: December 1, 2010
The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God. By Peter Silvester. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. [xiii, 403 p. ISBN 978081086924. $75.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Boogie-woogie, a piano style built upon the blues and characterized by a variety of ostinato bass figures, is frequently viewed as a rudimentary music performed by untutored pianists with limited musical vocabulary. But under the hands of its greatest practitioners, boogie-woogie can inspire awe. Its origins are hazy, but anecdotes suggest a nineteenth-century genesis among unschooled pianists in saloons and barrelhouses in Southern lumber and turpentine camps. Musical suggestions of boogiewoogie surfaced occasionally in published ragtime piano music of the early 1900s and in recorded blues in following decades. The style finally found its name in 1928 with "Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie" (p. 9); it grew in popularity in the 1930s, and blossomed into a national phenomenon in the 1940s as a vocal and big-band music genre. After that high point of popularity, it receded in public consciousness but continued as an early jazz piano style attracting a coterie of fans and practitioners. Boogiewoogie today is a living art, showcased at boogie-woogie festivals in the United States and Europe with lineups of virtuoso performers that could hardly have been imagined by its originators.
This book is a new edition of a work published in 1989 with a slightly different title: A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie- Woogie Piano (New York: Da Capo). The fourteen chapters of the original become fifteen in its successor, with substantial changes in some of the chapters that bear the same (or similar) names.
Silvester assumes the task of telling the full story of boogie-woogie, from its undocumented beginnings to the present, and he starts off well. The book is organized roughly chronologically, though there is some overlap when considering centers of boogie-woogie, such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. Part 1, "The Beginnings," includes a chapter on "Industries and Centers Supporting Boogie-Woogie in the South," which recounts stories of piano playing in the barrelhouses of lumber and turpentine camps of the Southern states, extending from Florida northward to the Carolinas and westward to Texas and Oklahoma. These stories are the stuff of legend, but Silvester constructs a compelling tale by merging published histories of the camps with anecdotes told by early practitioners of boogie-woogie. Stories are gathered from such musicians as Little Brother Montgomery, Huddie "Leadbelly" Leadbetter, Bunk Johnson, Sammy Price, Roosevelt Sykes, and Tony Calento. The early exponents may have been untutored and musically crude, but from such inauspicious beginnings developed an art that is still practiced today.
The reconstructed narrative of emerging boogie-woogie at these Southern camps, along with the many biographical sketches, constitute the book's greatest strengths. The biographies are too numerous to list here, but along with sketches of such major figures as Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Cow-Cow Daven - port, Champion Jack Dupree, Jimmy Yancey, and Pinetop Smith, we find pieces on Jimmy Blythe, Clarence Lofton, Rufus Perryman, and on such modern giants like Jay McShann, Bob Seeley, Axel Zwingin - berger, and Carl Sonny Leyland.
The book does a good job in demonstrating the importance of the two "Spirituals to Swing" concerts, held at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939, and the first Café Society nightclub, which opened in 1939. These were showcases for the best in boogiewoogie at that time, and provided nourishment for the genre's further development. At the same time, though, boogie-woogie was being adopted by swing bands, including the popular big bands. The transfer of the genre from piano to band, Silvester tells us, was accompanied by a gradual discarding of the blues (pp. 224-25). This assertion cries out for examples to illustrate the point. Further, to whatever extent big band boogie discarded the blues, those instances must be weighed against the big band boogie that retained the blues. One might think that the more commercially successful big band boogie-woogie would have had the weakest connection with the blues, but this assumption is not necessarily true. The wildly popular Andrews Sisters, for example, in such ultracommercial big band numbers as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," retain strong blues links in their structure and harmonies.
Silvester speaks of the significance that a piece titled "The Fives" (1921) had in the development of the style. His description conveys a sense of the music: "The bass pattern of 'The Fives' is a varied one consisting of passages of 'stride,' walking bass, stepping octave chords, and other boogiewoogie basses. The treble also contains elements of typical boogie-woogie chording" (p. 53). But a few music examples would have been so much more illuminating. The lack of music examples (music examples, such as they are, are restricted to an appendix illustrating seventeen boogie-woogie bass styles) is the book's major short - coming. Long stretches of text devoted to discussing specific recordings, or citing recordings as evidence for the author's assertions, are meaningless to those unfamiliar with the recordings and can make the text unbearably tedious. Some publishers now allocate web space for notated music examples and sound clips, essential features that would have gone a long way to make these sections comprehensible.
Silvester seems insecure in technical discussions. He acknowledges, in his preface, using the analytical notes left by a deceased colleague, Denis Harbinson (p. vii). One may wonder about the extent to which Silvester truly grasps the details underlying the music. As an incipient boogie-woogie was being developed in the early twentieth century, elements would occasionally show up in piano ragtime publications. Silvester examines some of these appearances, but in doing so displays a shallow understanding of the music and history of ragtime, which coincided with the emergence of boogie-woogie. His statement that "white composers of popular music began using the ragtime form for tunes such as 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' from about 1911" (p. 46) is wrong historically and musically. Ragtime did not have a unique form; it adopted the form of the march. White composers, rather than waiting until 1911, were using this form in rags from the earliest years of ragtime publication, in 1896-97. As for "Alexander's Ragtime Band," it has nothing to do with ragtime form; it is cast in the verse-chorus structure typical of the period's popular songs.
Silvester is also prone to missteps that show his research to be less thorough than he suggests. He writes: "An examination of early sheet music tends to support this notion [that boogie-woogie elements appear in some ragtime publications]. [Eubie] Blake was reported to have composed 'Charles ton Rag' [which includes a boogielike bass] in 1899, though it first appeared in sheet music form in 1917" (p. 48). One might surmise from this sentence that Silvester had examined a 1917 sheet music copy of "Charleston Rag," but its only publication in that year was as a piano roll. A notated rendition was not to become commercially available for another fifty-eight years, when it was included in a folio of Blake compositions transcribed by Terry Waldo (in Sincerely Eubie Blake [New York: Edward B. Marks/Belwin Mills, 1975], 4-12).
Despite the book's shortcomings, its coverage is broad and it contains an immense amount of information. It is deficient in not having music examples to illustrate the author's arguments, but with so many boogie-woogie recordings available on YouTube and other Internet sites, it is easy to see the possibility of using the book as a guide. In that function, it may realize its greatest value.
Edward A. Berlin
Miller Place, NY