Fri 13 Jul 2007
I've always been a huge fan of barrelhouse piano, which doesn't seem to garner as much enthusiasm among blues fans as do the guitar players. In the 1920's and 1930's many of these itinerant piano players were captured on record. Along with St. Louis one of the more distinctive piano blues traditions arose in Texas. The Texas pianists were thankfully fairly well recorded and they left behind some marvelous music. On the 7/29 show I'm devoting an entire show to them and thought I would provide a bit of background on this fascinating tradition.
The Texas piano tradition flowered in the 1920’s and was at its peak during the 1930’s when a number of the tradition’s best players were recorded. Today, seventy years down the line, much has changed; blues is no longer a music performed and listened to strictly by African-Americans, the piano blues tradition has virtually evaporated and regional styles have effectively disappeared.The Texas piano tradition was a rich and vibrant one and luckily fairly well documented on record. As Francis Smith notes: “With the two major recording centers of New York and Chicago a thousand miles to the North, it was extremely fortunate that so many pianists of this important close knit Texas group were recorded—all three record companies of the time being involved.” The three companies were Columbia, Victor and Vocalion in addition to Bluebird and Okeh. These companies, either singularly or in various combinations, made field trips to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio in 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1941.
As Paul Oliver observed: “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues, which is not to say that there were no great blues guitarists in Texas, or piano men in Mississippi. A cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas. They can be grouped into "schools", characterized by certain similarities of style and approach, that were partly a reflection of the environments in which they worked, of their friendships and associations with other pianists, and by the isolation of Texas from other states.” One school was the so-called "Santa Fe group" who were based in the southwestern part of the state where the cities of Galveston, Houston and Richmond lie. Here was where the music thrived and pianists could be found like Pinetop Burks, Son Becky, Rob Cooper, Black Boy Shine, Andy Boy, Big Boy Knox, Robert Shaw, Buster Pickens and the singers who worked with them like Walter “Cowboy” Washington and Joe Pullum. The other important school was a cluster of pianists and singers based in Dallas such as Alex Moore, Texas Bill Day, Neal Roberts Willie Tyson, and singer Billiken Johnson.
While the above artists were recorded in Texas there was an earlier Texas piano tradition that was recorded out of state. This early tradition was based around the remarkable Thomas family who made the bulk of their recordings between 1923 and 1928. The music sounds quite different as Paul Oliver notes: “It is this distance in time that seems to place the Thomas circle quite apart from the pianists and singers of Houston and Galveston seaports… Their records were made a decade later, between 1934 and 1937, and in our perspective of blues history they seem to belong to quite a different age.” As David Evans states: “It is likely that no family has contributed more personalities to blues history than the Thomas family of Houston, Texas, whose famous members included George W. Thomas, his sister Beulah “Sippie” Wallace, their brother Hersal Thomas, George’s daughter Hociel Thomas, and Moanin’ Bernice Edwards who was raised up in the family.”
Before discussing the individual piano players it's worth providing a bit of context into how the piano tradition arose in Texas and surrounding areas. It was the lumber industry which was the incubator of the piano tradition in these regions. By the 1830' s large scale lumber operations were in full swing but mainly concentrated in the east. By the 1850's inroads had been made into the Southern Forest. As Peter J. Silvester notes "It is this Southern Forest, parts of which are referred to as the Piney Woods… …which acted as host to the beginnings of the musical style which was to become know as boogie woogie. It was the black labor force working throughout the length and breadth of this entire region which… …ensured it's survival by providing sympathetic audiences and venues for the music. …It was mainly the brawn and muscle of black laborers which swung the axe or pushed and pulled on the crosscut saw to fell the trees of the Piney Woods." One of the by products of the lumber industry was turpentine (made from resin from the pine trees) and side-by-side of the lumber camps were the turpentine camps as well as sawmill camps. Silvester describes the conditions: "The logging camp could consist of a half-dozen boxcar like shacks of weathered wood, two or three bunkhouses to accommodate from seventy-five to 150 men… …All are set along a spur of the logging railway that runs back through old cuttings to the mills. These boxcar-like shacks would in fact be converted railroad boxcars, or could be boxlike structures built on railroad flatcars. …One of these shacks functioned as combination dancehall, crap-game dive and whorehouse. This was known as the barrelhouse, the honky tonk, or the juke. Furnished by the lumber company with drink and piano, it was a rough, tough place." Black musicians, particularly piano, players followed the tracks to find work in these camps. "Barrelhouse circuits" developed, one of which was the southwest corner of Texas around the towns of Galveston, Houston and Richmond which the "Santa Fe group" used as their base. The Santa Fe railroad, with a main line running north from Galveston and Houston through Texas and Oklahoma served eight-eight Texas counties. "From playing in the back streets of Galveston, Houston and Richmond, the Santa Fe group of pianists would travel via the numerous lines of the Santa Fe railroad-around the barrelhouse circuits to play in the various camps and towns."
The Texas piano tradition was first documented on record by the Thomas family. George Washington Thomas, Jr., the oldest of twelve children was born in Little Rock, AK in 1883 but had moved to Houston by 1900. As David Evans states "it was the ragtime and blues of this city and the surrounding region of southeast Texas served by the Santa Fe railroad that would shape the piano styles of various family members." George move to New Orleans and then Chicago where he published and composed close to a hundred pieces, mostly blues with many sung on the vaudeville stages by his sister Sippie Wallace and his daughter Hociel Thomas. He recorded three piano rolls in 1924 and is though to be the man behind the pseudonym Clay Custer who recorded "The Rocks" [MP3] (a song composed by Thomas) in 1923 and two other numbers.
George's brother, Hersal, is described by Francis Smith: "That Hersal, the child prodigy, was a highly influential pianist among his peers there is no doubt; even though he left Houston in his very early 'teens he had established a reputation there which remains still in the folk memory." In the early 1920's he followed his brother to Chicago where he recorded extensively behind his sister Sippie Wallace and her niece Hociel Thomas. His appearance in Chicago, Paul Oliver notes, "created a sensation and profoundly influenced the piano players who heard his grumbling basses and highly poetic melodic inventions." Under his own name he cut a piano roll in 1924 plus "Suitcase Blues" and "Hersal Blues" in 1925. He died a year later due to a case of food poisoning. Bernice Edwards is most obscure of the group and it's not clear how closely tied she was to the Thomas family. She cut sixteen sides between 1928 and 1935 and as Evans states "her piano playing displays a fully developed "Santa Fe" style…" Her last session was recorded in Fort Worth with backing from Texas musicians J.T. "Howlin Smith and pianist Black Boy Shine.
-Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, Howard W. Rye. Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. 4th edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.
-Oliver, Paul. The Story of the Blues. 4th edition. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1997.
-Silvester, Peter J.. A Left Hand Like Boogie: A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano. DA Capo, Ne York, 1988.
-Evans, David. Notes accompanying Texas Piano Blues Vol. 1 1934-1938, 1994, Document.
-Oliver, Paul and Smith, Francis. Notes accompanying The Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937, 1978, Magpie.
-Oliver, Paul and Smith, Francis. Notes accompanying The Piano Blues Vol. 11: Texas Santa Fe 1934-1937, 1979, Magpie.