- The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God
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. [End Page 309]
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 Davenport, 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 Zwinginberger, 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 boogie-woogie 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...