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Why Study Music History?
Part 3

In our last session, we explored the formative years of music history in the United States.  The well known styles of this time were Marching and Blues.  We now move on to the next styles of music: Boogie Woogie and Ragtime.  Music continued to evolve, while everything revolved around dancing.  Music brought people together to escape their daily stresses and propelled them to dance!  We will see this in the styles of Boogie Woogie and Ragtime.


“A Hand Like God” - Boogie Woogie 

Boogie Woogie was often coined as having “A left hand like God”.  The left hand on the piano played repeated melodies in a fast tempo.  This served as an ostinato, which is a repeatable and uninterrupted beat.  While the left hand played this upbeat ostinato, the right hand would play counter rhythms.  These were known as riffs, licks, and melodies.

The Origins of Boogie Woogie 

Although Boogie Woogie originated as early as the 1870s, it was first coined as the term Boogie Woogie in 1928.  Pinetop Smith performed Pinetop's Boogie Woogie in December 1928 in Chicago.  This was when it was first called the style, “Boogie Woogie”.  Boogie Woogie originated from the African American communities.  It was developed in the Deep South.  These African Americans would work long hour shifts followed by singing and dancing in saloons.  These saloons would generally only have a piano and simple bars, and all the workers would dance and do the Boogie Woogie.  This developed in Northeast Texas and eventually moved to New Orleans and other places in Louisiana.

The Geographical Expansion of Boogie Woogie 

By the mid-40s, the music began to move to Chicago, Detroit, and New York.  As it became widely spread in the U.S., it was still popular primarily in the African American communities.  Before WWII and the post recession, unemployment remained high, so social gatherings and music served as a great outlet for them.  Events were even done in homes where small fees were required for entry.  These fees were as low as five cents and were used to help pay for the rent of the home! 

The Influences of Boogie Woogie

One of the key influences of Boogie Woogie included: Jimmy Yancey.  Yancy was born in Chicago in the very late 19th century and helped develop the Boogie Woogie with a style of slow, steady, and simple left-handed patterns that became recognized by other musicians.  He played an integral role in the development of this style.  Another influential name was George Washington Thomas Jr.  Born in March of 1983 in Arkansas, he composed key music pieces that represented this style.  These songs included: “The Rocks” and “The Fives”.

The Instrumental Expansion of Boogie Woogie

While the piano was the central instrument to Boogie Woogie, it later introduced the drums, bass, vocals, and other instruments as music continued to evolve.

The Impact of Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie has had a significant impact on music.  It was integrated with New Orleans jazz, blues, and also developed the sound of rock ‘n’ roll.  Pianist, Mary Lou Williams, who played with artists like Duke Ellington, integrated the Boogie Woogie style into her playing.  Popular and talented Cab Calloway, incorporated Boogie Woogie in his lyrics and sound.  Cool jazz singers, like Judy Garland, integrated sounds like Boogie Woogie to some of her titles.  You can hear this in her song, “Thousands Cheer”.  Moreover, you can hear the influence of Boogie Woogie in big band titles of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Little Richard (rock ‘n’ roll influence) and Elvis Presley (rockabilly influence) all had the influential sound of Boogie Woogie that influenced rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly in the 1950s!

Trivial Fact!  Where did Boogie Woogie reach its peak among the mainstream audience?

Answer: It was at the Carnegie Hall in New York City on Christmas Eve of 1938!  The name of this concert was called, “From Spirituals To Swing”.  Although it featured integrated styles like blues and jazz, Boogie Woogie style also played an important role.  This was a historic evening where the best of the best musicians came together to play music.  These musicians included: Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner, and Helen Humes, just to name a few!  It also broke many racial divisions that were common in that culture.  Think of Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kareem Abdul Jabaar, and Kobe Bryant all on the same basketball team.  This evening was considered the all-star lineup!

The Development of Ragtime Music  

Ragtime was a main style of music that emerged in the final quarter of the 19th Century.  It introduced the world to syncopation, as this is the key characteristic of ragtime.  Although ragtime developed into an artform after the Civil War, the roots began during times of slavery.  Plantation owners would seek slaves who were great entertainers.  While instruments were abolished, these entertainers would use spoons and washboards to entertain the owners.  These Africans also adapted by performing European dance tunes for their audiences.  When the Civil War came to an end, Africans would partake in minstrel shows that incorporated music and entertainment.  Around this time, Africans subsequently developed their own identity of ragtime music.  According to Smithsonian’s book Music The Definitive Music Vision, “The term ragtime refers to the “ragging” or raggedly informal reinterpretation of a melody, which is a rhythmic approach in which a steady pulse is decorated by melodic accentuation of surprising, weaker beats (or offbeats).  This technique, known as syncopation, creates a spirited dancing sound that inspires listeners to move to the music.”

The Blend of Europe and Africa in Ragtime 

Ragtime has a marching oriented sound as it was adapted from the marches of John Philip-Sousa.  On the piano, polyrhythms were often played.  The left hand represented the rhythm section playing the bass notes and chords.  It was influenced by the European marches.  The right hand involved syncopation that was influenced by Africa.  It plays three or four distinctive syncopated themes.  It mixes onbeats and offbeats, which characterizes the creative sound of ragtime.  Although ragtime was of African origin, no doubt was it influenced by European music.  European classical musicians, like Igor Stravinsky from Russia, and Claude Debussy from France, played a role and influenced ragtime musicians.

The Influences of Ragtime

Fats Waller was a key influence of ragtime.  He was a popular singer, pianist, and organist.  Scott Joplin also played a vital role in incorporating the polyrhythms played with the right hand with the Sousa marching style played with the left hand.  Some of Joplin’s classic titles include: “Maple Leaf Rag”, “Easy Winners”, and “The Entertainer”


The Instrumental Expansion of Ragtime

Like Boogie Woogie, ragtime started off with the piano.  As it progressed, the guitar, drums, and other instruments were introduced.  Drum rudiments and marching sound were paramount to play as a drummer.  Early pioneer drummers, like Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, were instrumental in the sound of march, and rudimentary work during the ragtime era eventually gave birth to jazz.

The Key To Ragtime

What made ragtime so special?  It was dancing.  Tap dancing and other dances all played a role in ragtime.  Simple rhythms in 2/4 time allowed people to dance to this style.

Trivial Fact!  Do you know what instrument ragtime was first developed on? 

Answer: Instruments were outlawed during times of slavery in the United States.  However, the earliest melodies of ragtime were first developed on the banjos and fiddles before being played on the piano!

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