Boogie-Woogie: A Fast-and-Fun Piano Genre [Guide]
In today’s episode of PianoTV we’ll be discussing Boogie-Woogie, a piano-centric branch on the jazz/blues music tree.
Once upon a time we looked at an overview of American music history, where we discussed Jazz, Rock and other American-born genres. We’ve also done a video about another piano-based genre, ragtime, which you can check out.
Boogie-woogie is all about dancing (unlike other blues music which is all about emotion). That means it tends to be fast and upbeat, with a light-hearted spirit.
Boogie-woogie is mainly defined by specific basslines, which we’ll talk about and demonstrate in this video. We’ll also look at the history and evolution of boogie-woogie, discuss key players, and I’ll share a Spotify playlist with some songs mentioned in this video if you’d like to dig deeper into the genre.
Let’s get started!
History of Boogie Woogie
Where did the term “boogie woogie” come from?
There are three African words that probably contributed to the term “boogie woogie”. We have “boog” and “booga”, meaning to beat a drum. Then we have the word “bogi”, meaning “to dance”. These terms are consistent with the strong beat and wild dancing common to boogie woogie music.
The term “boogie” in sheet music started appearing around the turn of the 20th Century, such as “That Syncopated Boogie-Boo” from 1913. But this, and other works with “boogie” in the title, didn’t yet represent what we know as boogie woogie.
A track called “Weary Blues”, both the version from 1915 and from 1919, are the first recordings known to use the standard boogie-woogie bassline.
The first time the actual spelling of “boogie-woogie” was used was in 1928 with Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, which also conveniently contained dance instructions in the lyrics.
Where did boogie-woogie originate?
The origin of boogie-woogie seems to be Texas in the late 1800s. The genre was also originally referred to as a “Fast Western”. This Texan style differentiated from the slower New Orleans style of jazz and blues. These regional differences were so apparent that musicians could quickly tell where a performer was from based on their style.
Specific boogie-woogie style basslines are named after different locations where they originated. For example, “The Marshall” bassline, the most primitive version of the boogie-woogie pattern, originated in Marshall, Texas. It’s a simple four-beats-to-the-bar figure.
“The Marshall” bassline
We’ll come back around to these soon and go through them in full.
The Birthplace of Boogie-Woogie
In 2010, Marshall, Texas, enacted an official declaration for being the birthplace of boogie-woogie music, and the city is now investing in further research as well as making it a tourist attraction. And “The Marshall” is the first, most primitive bassline of boogie-woogie which we’ll talk about shortly.
Boogies were sometimes called “house rent parties” – in order to help pay their rent, people would host a party at their place, inviting a boogie-woogie pianist and cooking up some tasty southern fare, and charging a small entrance fee.
Some of the most famous boogie-woogie musicians include Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey and Albert Ammons (who we’ll mention later), as well as Cripple Clarence Lofton and Sugar Chile Robinson.
The first wave of boogie-woogie players was influenced by ragtime music (which we discussed in another video), whereas later boogie-woogie players were more influenced by blues music.
One of the earliest boogie-woogie hits, as mentioned early, was “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” by Pinetop Smith, released in 1929. Since this song became a hit, it helped establish the connection between the term “boogie-woogie” and the style of music.
One of the first solo piano records of boogie-woogie was published in 1924 by Jimmy Blythe. The album is called “Chicago Stomps”.
In the late 1930s you could see piano performances of boogie-woogie at Carnegie Hall. The performers included Big Toe Turner, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. These were high-class performances and they would often play duets or trios all on the piano.
Around 1940, the swing era was percolating, which absorbed some of the boogie-woogie styles. Tommy Dorsey’s band recorded a cover of “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie”, becoming a hit in the mid-forties. It grew in popularity to become swing music’s second-biggest hit (the first being Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”).
Other boogie-woogie songs coming into popularity around this time included “Boo-Woo” and “Woo-Woo” by Harry James, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. The Will Bradley Orchestra wrote boogie-woogie tunes including “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” and “Down the Road a Piece”. Pretty much every Big Band group had a boogie-woogie song in their toolbox by the 1940s.
We’re going to go through the main basslines of boogie-woogie, defined by their geographical origins. I’ll show you what they sound like on the piano as well.
But first, let’s look at 12-bar blues as it relates to boogie-woogie music.
Boogie-woogie patterns are based on 12-bar blues. A standard 12-bar blues pattern looks like this:
The Roman numerals represent a chord. For example, if you’re in the key of C, the “I” chord, or first chord, is C. The IV chord would be F (since F is four notes up from C), and the V chord would be G (since G is 5 notes up from C).
So a 12-bar blues pattern in C would look like this:
Of course it’s important to note that this 12-bar blues pattern wasn’t followed religiously by musicians. Sometimes you’d see 14-bar blues or 11-bar blues – but this is the basic premise of the pattern.
Now let’s look at the various boogie-woogie basslines – there are 12 we’ll look at today. We’ll start with “The Marshall”, since I already mentioned it – and since Marshall, Texas, is considered the birthplace of boogie-woogie.
“The Marshall” bassline
It’s the simplest boogie-woogie pattern, with four-to-a-bar (meaning there are four left-hand beats in each bar). It follows a walking pattern of :
It’s easy to play – you simply plunk your hands in a five-finger position and get to work. You start in C position, move to F, back to C, and so on. Each set of four notes is based on that key’s pentascale. For example, F pentascale is:
F G A Bb C
So when you play the 1-3-4-5 pattern, you’re going to play:
F A Bb C
Then we had “The Jefferson”, slightly more complex than “The Marshall”, originating in Jefferson, Texas. From there, the boogie-woogie patterns spread out and became increasingly more complex.
“The Jefferson” bassline
This one is still easy in that it’s a four-to-a-bar pattern, but it involves a little more movement to the hand, extending the position from the standard five-finger position.
The pattern for The Jefferson is:
Next we have “The Hoxie” bassline. This is a variation on “The Marshall” and would lead to “Texas and Pacific” bassline (also known as the “The Cows”), which is the most famous boogie-woogie figure.
“The Hoxie” bassline
Still four-to-a-bar, our pattern with The Hoxie is:
It’s basically a chord plus the sixth note.
For example, a C chord, C E G (1-3-5) plus A (6).
The Texas and Pacific
The “Texas and Pacific” bassline, boogie-woogie’s most well-known figure, was developed by piano players performing at the boarding house for workers building the Texas and Pacific bridge.
The “Texas and Pacific” bassline
This is where we get the eight-to-a-bar rhythm. It’s a walking, scale-like pattern:
You can see the pattern occasionally shift to 1-3-5-6-8-6-5-3 as well (the b7 shifts to an 8, changing the chord from a C7 to a regular C major chord).
Texarkana & Northern
Next up is the Texarkana & Northern bassline, invented by people working on the Kansas City Southern Railroad.
The “Texarkana & Northern” bassline
This is a swinging eight-to-a-bar pattern. It’s catchy but more complex:
The Swamp Poodle bassline, named after Texarkana’s red-light district, is basically just a broken-octave doubling of the Texas and Pacific bassline. It’s also probably the most well-known boogie-woogie pattern of all time.
The “Swamp Poodle” bassline
Our Texas and Pacific bassline was a walking pattern that looked like this:
And the Swamp Poodle is identical, but now we’re rocking octaves. As such, it’s quite a bit trickier to play.
Another boogie-woogie figure is the “Black Diamond” bassline, named after the community in which it originated (like all of these others) – not to be confused with challenging ski hills, though this pattern certainly has its own challenges.
The “Black Diamond” bassline
Here’s the pattern:
1-3-4-#4-5-#4-4-b3-1 (alternating with the top octave note)
On the 9th and 10th bar (the shorter bars), our pattern changes to:
The Shreveport bassline, from Shreveport, Louisiana, is from the red-light district where famous musician Lead Belly grew up. Apparently, he heard boogie-woogie music being played on piano down the street.
The “Shreveport” bassline
This is our first bassline to mix both quarter notes and eighth notes up. In some ways that makes it more challenging. 8th notes may be faster, but the consistent and steady rhythm tends to be easier to play than rhythms that are mixed.
1 8-3-5 3-5
The Tyler Tap and The Big Sandy
There are a couple other boogie-woogie basslines that take a different shape and form, as you’ll see.
The “Tyler Tap” bassline is full of harmonic intervals, as is the Big Sandy bassline.
The “Tyler Tap” bassline
The “Big Sandy” bassline
Big Sandy is the easier version of the Tyler Tap, since you just alternate between two intervals:
The Greenwood and the Waskom
Then we have a couple of simpler, single-note basslines – the “Greenwood” bassline and the “Waskom” bassline.
The “Greenwood” bassline
Looks can be deceiving with this one, though. As with the Shreveport, the non-steady rhythm can make this one challenging once the right hand is thrown into the picture. Additionally, the beat is syncopated, making it more challenging to play.
The note pattern is simple though, just based on major chords:
The “Waskom” bassline
And our final pattern, one of the easiest to play – it’s simply a major chord pattern, and you don’t have to deal with any syncopation like in The Greenwood:
Branches of Boogie-Woogie
Another popular boogie-woogie hit includes “Cow Cow Boogie” by Johnny Barfield. This was a blend of standard boogie-woogie with Western/cowboy music and led to the genre hillbilly boogie in the mid-1940s. One famous song from this period was “Freight Train Boogie” by the Delmore Brothers. This song would help the genre lean into rockabilly later.
Hillbilly boogie lasted about a decade “Guitar Boogie” and “Banjo Boogie” by Arthur Smith were also notable boogie-woogies in this vein, but the boogie beat would continue to surface in country music throughout the decades. The Charlie Daniels Band has a song called “Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues” released in 1988, and Brooks & Dunn had “Boot Scootin’ Boogie in 1991.
Boogie-Woogie made its way to Chicago as well. Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins, two legendary blues pianists, were both heavily influenced by Pinetop Smith.
How long did boogie-woogie last?
Boogie-woogie lasted about one and a half decades – from the late-thirties to the early-fifties. From there it evolved into jump blues and finally rock n’ roll.
Aside from country artists, people in many genres have released boogie-woogie music since the fifties. Big Joe Duskin’s 1979 album Cincinnati Stomp features the genre.
Christina Aguilera even has a boogie-woogie song – hers is called “Candyman”, based on the big-band hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”.
Boogie-woogie can be heard in Classical music as well. Morton Gould wrote the Boogie-Woogie Etude, Conlon Nancarrow’s early works were inspired by the genre, and Povel Ramel mixed it up with a waltz in Johansson’s boogie-woogie-vals.
Characteristics of boogie-woogie
Let’s finish up with a discussion on qualities and characteristics that make up boogie-woogie music.
As we’ve talked about in-depth, it’s a piano-based genre that tends to incorporate 12-bar blues and specific basslines. The left-hand doesn’t have any variation in a piece, maintaining a consistent pattern while the right-hand riffs on top of it.
It tended to be working-class music, born in communities of workers (lumberyards, railroad workers and so on), or urban rent parties.
Boogie-woogie emphasizes rhythm over melody, and simplicity over complexity, patterns over chords. It tended to be wild, unpolished, and oftentimes performed on old and out-of-tune pianos. Basically it was party music.
Most boogie-woogie is eight-to-the-bar (8 eighth notes per bar in the LH), though earlier boogie-woogie is four-to-the-bar like we’ve seen.
Melodies tend to use the blues scale with some chromaticism for interest.
This is an African American-led genre, so the music draws on the tradition of spirituals and the powerful rhythms of African music.
Unlike ragtime, boogie-woogie is meant to be played with an eighth-note swing (instead of a straight beat).
I hope you enjoyed this look at Boogie-Woogie music. Be sure to check out the Boogie-Woogie Spotify playlist I created where you can listen to all the music we talked about today. It’s a short-and-sweet playlist at just an hour long with 22 songs – enough to give you a general idea of the genre.
This Boogie Woogie Heritage Driving Tour is a great resource (and would make an excellent road trip!). Non Jonn’s website also has an excellent boogie-woogie history section.
If you’re interested in starting to learn boogie-woogie on the piano, this WikiHow article is actually really helpful.
Though not meant for complete beginners (you’d want a couple years under your belt), this book looks like a solid introduction to boogie-woogie.
The Jazz in America page is an excellent resource as well.
Enjoy and see you in the next one!