When Texas & Pacific Railroad began laying tracks in Marshall in the 1870s, a new American sound emerged in barrel houses outside of town where railroad and lumber workers flocked for entertainment.
The new sound — played on rickety pianos brought in by camp bosses — featured a heavy bass chord progression that mimicked the rhythm and chug of rumbling steam locomotives. People danced through the night to the earthy rhythms and exciting melodies. Self-taught pianists played repetitive bass rhythms independently of the right hand’s melodies. One bass line, known as “The Marshall,” is an ascending chord progression that repeats with key changes over 12 bars.
The style, now known as boogie woogie, may be Texas’ most influential sound.
“[Boogie woogie] has influenced more music in more ways than any other music in the world,” says Jack Canson, leader of Marshall’s “Birthplace of Boogie Woogie” movement, which began about 10 years ago.
Before the city’s official declaration of Marshall as the “Birthplace of Boogie Woogie” on May 13, 2010, few citizens knew its significance, but the city is now poised to expand the role with an annual revival drawing visitors from around the world.
Canson and others are planning for future events and raising funds for a museum to honor the legacy of the late boogie woogie Marshall musicians Omar Sharriff and Floyd Dickson.
Born Dave Alexander Elam, Shariff learned to play boogie woogie while growing up in Marshall, but left for California early in life and changed his name. One of the world’s most influential boogie-woogie pianists, Keyboard Magazine ranked Sharriff second only to Ray Charles among living blues pianists in 1977.
Shariff returned to Marshall to perform for the city’s Boogie Woogie Revival in 2010. The city invited him to be their artist in residence and he moved back to Marshall in 2011, where he performed many times before his death in 2012.
According to Canson, Shariff’s return helped the city establish its claim to birthplace fame, which had almost vanished. For decades, the birthplace of boogie woogie eluded historians, due to scant historical records and the genre’s rapid diffusion. The genre spread quickly among African-American musicians who boarded trains in the late 1800s to escape racial oppression and play in venues that could pay them a living wage.
Boogie woogie’s influence on other music genres, such as jazz, gospel, and blues, is well-established, but rock and roll is the sound’s most significant legacy.
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter is considered the first musician to adapt boogie woogie’s fast-paced, upbeat sound to guitar, the foundation of rock and roll.
Born in 1888 on the south shoreline of Caddo Lake between Texas and Louisiana, Lead Belly adapted the piano rhythms to guitar and achieved fame with popular songs such as “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special,” and by recording tracks for RCA records and performing on CBS radio in the 1940s.
Rock musician Little Richard described the genre’s influence on his music more than 30 years ago.
“Everything I play is boogie woogie,” he said in 1986, when inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Rock and roll is just up-tempo boogie woogie.”
Boogie woogie is also the basis for Elvis Presley’s version of “All Shook Up,” “Rude Mood” by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and countless other influential tunes.
“I felt a missionary zeal about this music, wanting people to know how important and influential it was,” Canson said. “We are living in a place where some remarkable things happened.”
For more information on Boogie Woogie Marshall, visit www.boogiewoogiemarshall.com.