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“When I Say Get It”: A Brief History of the Boogie
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“When I Say Get It”
A Brief History of the Boogie

One night I was laying down.I heard mama and papa talking.I heard papa tell mamato let that boy boogie-woogie.’Cause it’s in him,and it’s got to come out.

—John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen”

We love to boogie on a Saturday night.

—T. Rex, “I Love to Boogie”
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“I like to boogie-woogie,” Madonna proclaimed in the title track of her 2000 release, Music: “it’s like riding on the wind and it never goes away.” The boogie-woogie—or just boogie for short— born one hundred years before Madonna sang its praises, had survived into a new millennium and, as far at least as that pop songstress was concerned, would be around forever. Madonna at Wembley Arena, 2006, courtesy of Annodam/Rocco under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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I like to boogie-woogie,” Madonna proclaimed in the title track of her 2000 release, Music: “it’s like riding on the wind and it never goes away.” The boogie-woogie—or just boogie for short—born one hundred years before Madonna sang its praises, had survived into a new millennium and, as far at least as that pop songstress was concerned, would be around forever. The boogie (at any rate, a music by that name) had emerged at the turn of the twentieth century among black piano players in the rural South, had migrated to the city, and had been embraced in turns by white pop-crooners, middle-class concert-goers, jazz pioneers, and electric hillbillies. It had helped give birth to rock ’n’ roll and had lent its name and at least some of its ethos to glam rockers, disco dancers, and gangsta rappers. By the time it reached Madonna, by then a long way from its roots, the boogie was not just a musical idiom—indeed, it was no longer that at all—but a kind of drug, an oxygen and Holy Spirit: “it touches everything I’m in,” Madonna sang, apparently using the phrase “boogie-woogie” interchangeably with “music” itself; “got to have it every day.” Whatever it was, this boogie, it seemed to be at once everything and nothing, impossible to pin down, define, or explain: the wind.1

The first documented appearance of the phrase “boogie-woogie” was in the title and lyrics of a 1928 recording by pianist Clarence “Pine Top” Smith. The record, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” reflected an upbeat and low-rumbling, improvisation- and percussion-heavy style of piano playing that had followed migrants like Smith from the South into the urban centers of the North. (Smith was born in Troy, Alabama, began his career in Birmingham, and by the early 1920s relocated again to Pittsburgh). The thing was blues, perhaps, but a distinctive subset of the blues. Another Alabama-born pianist, Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport, later claimed to have introduced Smith to the term “boogie-woogie,” though Smith had already mastered the style. In an interview in the 1950s Davenport recalled first witnessing a Pine Top performance, years earlier in a Pittsburgh honky-tonk, and telling the pianist: “Boy, look here, you sure have got a mean boogie-woogie.” “Pinetop,” Davenport said, “didn’t know what he was playing nohow,” but he happily adopted the phrase, incorporating it prominently into that breakthrough 1928 record. For the next few years Smith, Davenport, and others recorded a number of tunes in the same thumping style, popularizing both the sound and the name. With the spread of 78-rpm records, the label “boogie-woogie,” or the abbreviated “boogie,” would quickly come to eclipse the other names by which that music previously had been known.2

If the boogies of Pine Top and Cow Cow and their piano-playing contemporaries shared a common sound, that sound would seem absent altogether from the twenty-first-century boogie-woogie put forth by Madonna. Musically, her recording had little to do with the boogies that had gone before, but certainly, some thread of the original remained. Madonna’s musical bearings, and her notion of [End...