It’s Time to Boogie Into Fall

Lumbering in East Texas

Mississippi may have birthed juke joints and the blues, but East Texas lays claim to boogie woogie: a musical form created in piney woods railroad and lumber camps of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Musicologist John Tennison describes the 360-mile stretch of US 59 between El Campo and Texarkana as the ‘Boogie Woogie Highway,’ and the sound certainly did travel; today, the hard-driving music is performed and enjoyed around the world.

Henri Herbert, an extraordinary musician who specializes in boogie woogie, will be playing one of my favorite Texas venues this fall: not locally, but close enough that a visit with friends and an evening of boogie already is being planned. Born in France and raised in England, Herbert calls Austin home for now, but he can show up anywhere, including public pianos at St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations in London.

Jon Aizlewood of the London Evening Standard once described Herbert as being “like Jools Holland possessed by Jerry Lee Lewis and the Devil himself.” Here’s a taste of what he offers, and what I’m looking forward to experiencing in person.


Comments always are welcome.

76 thoughts on “It’s Time to Boogie Into Fall

    1. Boogie woogie’s easy to recognize, because of the heavy, walking bass line played by the left hand and the melodic improvisations provided by the right. That bass line made it into blues, jazz, and rock’n’roll, but it developed in boogie. It’s great traveling music, that’s for sure.

    1. I wasn’t aware of your public pianos until I bumped into them on YouTube. I must say — it was hard to keep from posting a dozen of those videos, saying, “Would you look at THIS?!” There’s an Irish fellow (Dr. K) and a young Swiss woman (Ladyva) whom you might well know. They’re just fabulous, but less well known over here than people like Jools Holland.

    1. I have no idea how I missed that post. On the other hand, it’s possible I hadn’t yet become aware of Herbert at that point. My introduction to contemporary boogie came via Marcia Ball, who finally cleared up the boogie/ragtime distinction for me. There’s an older recording of her playing with Pinetop Perkins that’s a gem.

    1. He often plays in Austin, but I didn’t realize he’d be appearing in a more accessible venue prior to his new tour. The fluidity of his playing always amazes me; I’m looking forward to a live event.

  1. He is really good. Isn’t it amazing how musicians can play such different things with their hands and so fast. Thanks for the wake up. It went well with my coffee this morning.

    1. It’s always good morning music, and it’s especially good for a holiday, when there’s a better chance of being able to dance through the day. Whenever I watch a pianist play, the old adage about walking and chewing gum comes to mind. The hours of practice must be uncountable.

      1. Muscle memory obviously plays a role, but I started wondering whether neural pathways also are strengthened or changed in pianists’ brains. It turns out that there’s a whole literature devoted to such things as ‘neuroplasticity,’ and whether it’s best to practice each hand separately or practice both at the same time. Here’s one interesting article that I could understand. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Naturally I had to look up the origin of boogie-woogie. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s “from African American Vernacular English, perhaps ultimately of West African origin and akin to Hausa bugi,bugɔ form taken by the verb buga,bugɔ to beat (drums), when preceding a noun object or to Mande bugɔ, to beat drums.”

    1. I’d say that origin makes sense, given that the music developed among post-Civil War freed slaves who were the backbone of the east Texas lumber and railroad development. One explanation for the name is that makeshift piney woods juke joints hosted parties sometimes called “booga roogas” with liquor, dice games, and dancing. In 1929, Alabama piano man Clarence Smith had a hit song called “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” and the name began to stick. This recording of Smith playing his original is a gem.

      I’ve always enjoyed the music, but I’ve been remarkably ignorant of its history; it was quite a revelation to find that towns like Rusk, Diboll, and Marshall played important roles in its development. Now there’s more reason than unusual plants to head into east Texas. I feel some research coming on.

    1. Doesn’t it make you feel good? I’ve enjoyed a good walking bass line since I was introduced to Ledbelly and other bluesmen decades ago, but there’s nothing like boogie woogie!

    1. I think it’s interesting that boogie seems to have become more popular in Europe than in the U.S., but there are groups dedicated to the genre now, and the presence of performers like Herbert certainly are going a good job of making the music more accessible. It certainly is music that’s ‘good for what ails ‘ya.’

    1. My, yes. I can watch a good boogie woogie pianist for hours, and if I’m making a road trip of any length, there’s always a little boogie in the playlist. It’s especially fun to watch some of the truly accomplished female players, too — like Ladyva (pronounced La-Diva).

    1. Some of it’s great work music, too. If I listen to music while I’m sanding, I tend to follow the tempo, so something with a good uptempo backbeat is just the ticket.

  3. My poor old piano teacher would have had a hissy-fit if I’d wanted to try something like this for one of our recitals!! But, wow, what a gift, huh?! The guy must have hands and arms of steel! Thanks, Linda — I didn’t realize boogie woogie got its start in East Texas.

    1. I grinned when I learned that Henri was a stevedore in past years. Even before he started playing, he was building those muscles. I laughed at your comment about your piano teacher. When it was time for my first clarinet recital, my teacher and parents agreed that I could play anything I wanted. My choice? Elvis’s “Love Me Tender.” What can I say? I was ten years old.

      I didn’t know a thing about the east Texas roots of the music, but I’m going to dig into it a bit more. It really is fascinating, and it evolved recently enough that many of the places and people associated with its beginnings are still around — or at least remembered.

    1. The east Texas connection was news to me, too. The first music history that intrigued me involved the blues, so Mississippi, Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago musicians became more familiar to me. Apparently Marshall, Texas, has been designed ‘ground zero’ for boogie woogie history; they even have a State of Texas historical plaque to prove it.

      1. Thanks for sharing the link. After reading the plaque, it makes sense. My mother was from that area of East Texas and we would visit, but I never heard anything about it. These historical plaques are so important – I try to stop to read them when I can.

  4. Though not a musical genre I often listen to I can’t help but tap my feet, smile, and enjoy anytime I stumble across it. I remember watching some videos by a pianist who’d dress in different ways and find a public piano with someone at it, then sit down with them and ask for help learning to play before breaking out into a full-scale boogie woogie. And from there I found videos of Henri Herbert (enjoy the show!!). What a finger, hand and arm workout! And finally, the photo reminded me of some of my ancestry who worked both as loggers and on the railroad along the northeast border of the US, though I’ve no clue if music was in any way involved, and if so what type.

    1. What’s as interesting as boogie woogie itself is the way it’s influenced rock and blues. After a little time spent listening to boogie, it’s easy to hear its echoes in a song like this, and then there’s Stevie Ray Vaughn, who could do to a guitar what Herbert does to a piano. The echoes are everywhere, and I love them all.

      How interesting that you’ve got that lumber and railroad connection to the northeast. I suspect there would have been plenty of music in their camps, although I couldn’t begin to guess what it would have been. I’ll bet the Library of Congress Folklife Center might offer some clues.

      1. Yes, absolutely. I’ve been slowly (oh so very slowly) learning to play acoustic guitar over the past couple years and at one point began learning some basic 5 bar blues patterns. When listening to boogie woogie slow enough it’s pretty obvious they use the same patterns. And I recall how fun it was when later in life I realized how much heavy metal pulls from the classical music I learned when playing trombone in grade school. All these very different styles of music are one long evolution of sound, which is perhaps why even when I don’t care for a particular piece or style of music I’m usually able to find something interesting about it.

    1. There’s no question about it. Of course, there’s not much live music I don’t enjoy — partly because I stay away from music I know I don’t like. You’ll not find me at a metal concert, that’s for sure.

  5. For me, boogie woogie is darn near the ultimate “feel good” music!

    When we lived in Germany, it was stunning to hear American jazz coming from our landlord’s apartment. Then, we went to eat at a place specializing in “fried chicken and dance music”. The locals called it “The Chicken Place”. We fully expected an evening of “the chicken dance.” The fried chicken was great, the beer was better – BUT – when the lights dimmed, the unmistakable bass piano started and, boogie-woogie all night long! Still one of our very favorite experiences.

    Enjoy the show!

    1. Isn’t it great the way times and places like that can linger, sometimes without fading at all? I’ll confess that I paused over the thought of German boogie woogie enthusiasts, but I’m all educated now after learning that there’s an annual Boogie Woogie Congress in Essen every year, and there are German boogie woogie musicians like Stefan Ulbricht touring this country.

      Not only that, I found this absolute gem of a German performance online. I can’t say if they have chicken, but they obviously have beer, and some danged good playing. I’ll bet it captures a bit of what you experienced, too.

  6. Damn, he’s good! For someone who lives in Austin, I’m woefully ignorant about some of our local musicians. I think what always impresses me about someone like him, is that he can play two different rhythms, at once. I’m pretty sure my head would explode! You’re going to have a wonderful time when you see him live! Thanks for sharing this, it was a treat!

    1. He’s going to be around Austin a good bit in the next couple of months. In fact, on October 11, he’ll be at Antone’s Record Shop at 3 p.m. for a free album release set. The combination of ‘free’ and ‘in the middle of Austin’ might make that a jaunt not worth the effort, but on the other hand: free.

      I often wonder the same about truly accomplished drummers, who put both hands and feet to work, or some of the remarkable guitarists who seem to pull magic from their instruments. I suppose part of the answer lies in practice; I think I read that Herbert practices five hours each day. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the pianists were spending a couple of hours in the gym every day, too.

  7. Love. love boogie woogie. I had no idea that this style of music originated in Texas. I must say this guy can play the piano and I see that he is not bad looking either. What a treat is in store for you. How fortunate that you can meet up with friends and have a night out listening to Herbert play.

    1. One of the things I unearthed in the process of doing some reading was this historical marker from Marshall, Texas. I might have bumped into some of this information if I’d taken time to stop when I was rolling through there so often; I used to go through Diboll, Lufkin, and Rusk when I’d drive up to Kansas City to visit Mom. Of course, if I’d known all this, I sure would have stopped.

      I wondered if that great rose tattoo is the yellow rose of Texas. If I get a chance, that’s what I’m going to ask him.

    1. Honestly, I feel like I’ve come full circle. In the ’60s, while I still was in high school, I got my hands on a Martin 12-string, and spent a lot of time doing what kids did then: listening to LPs again and again, trying to replicate what I heard. This YouTube generation has no idea how much effort it used to take! But I learned, and one of the masters I learned from was Leadbelly — who incorporated so many patterns found in boogie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I still had that Martin!

      1. In the 70’s I bought a wonderful Guild large body 6-string (Paul Simon played the same model for awhile) that had a sound that carried for miles when I lived on a mountaintop in Cummington, MA. Like you, I wish I still owned it.

  8. Your video brought back some of my earliest memories. My mom and dad were really into boogie Woogie. They’d play records and dance to it in our kitchen. My dad could play a little piano by ear—nothing like Herbert but a few chords that made you think he could if he’d had a piano at home to experiment on.

    1. My mom and dad were kitchen dancers, too, although they preferred swing. In fact, I still have the registration cards from some dance classes they took in the ’50s. Neither of them played an instrument, but they sure did teach music appreciation. I’d bet those memories of your folks are some of your sweetest; from what you’ve said about them here and there, I suspect they would have gotten along with my folks just fine.

  9. I paused the Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa novas (novae?) that I was listening to, so I could listen to Henri Herbert (a Frenchman) play American Boogie Woogie. The French have always “gotten” Le Jazz Hot, and other such Black American music and wanted it straight from the source without its having to be “filtered” through white musicians. (Le Divine Josephine being a case in point.) I’m not surprised it came from East Texas. Interesting part of the world. Western Swing from Oklahoma, Boogie Woogie from East Texas, “Glasses” Rock and Roll from the Texas flatlands, and Cajun music. When did teen agers stop listening to music that had some umph to it?

    1. “Glasses rock and roll”gave me a grin. No question who that refers to. Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and the Flatlanders always make me happy, too. Great musicians.

      What’s become clear to me is that I picked up the musical thread post-boogie and ragtime; I started with Leadbelly and others of the early bluesmen. Now, I’m discovering the relationships they all had with those earlier east Texas musicians, and it’s great fun.

      What really makes me grin is remembering that Van Cliburn was born in Shreveport and grew up in Kilgore. The same fertile soil that gave rise to boogie produced a rather different pianist.

  10. The organist at my last church could play boogie-woogie back in her youth (she was in her 80s). We kept trying to get her to play some to get folks back in the pews during the passing of the peace. Ha!

  11. Love it! I’m a wannabe dancer at heart. I took tap for a very short time. I was nine. One day I walked in to the Pavilion where our class was held and the custodian was playing this kind of music. It was new to me. What a treat it was.

    1. What fun to find the custodian playing boogie woogie! That’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about poking around the public piano YouTube videos. There are all sorts of talented people who love this music, even if their occupations have nothing at all to do with music. If my UPS delivery was a little late because the delivery guy took five minutes to do this, I wouldn’t care one bit. I do wish I’d learned to tap dance, though. I ended up being a pretty good dancer, but tap was just fun. I think I liked the noise.

      1. Three times that I was at Union Station Los Angeles, waiting for my train, I got to listen to three different pianists play the piano. One gentleman with suit and briefcase sat down and played a beautiful melody. I still have it on video. He played and quickly stood up as if he either had a train to catch or on his way to work. I learned to clog. The first dance I learned was to Rocky Top.

    1. We’re so eager for fall, there are billboards around town offering it incentives to take up residence. On the other hand, we’ve fallen below 80 for nighttime lows, so that’s something. I hope you have a nice, extended Indian summer, as we called it; it always was my favorite time of year in the midwest.

    1. When I watch him play, I just stare. I very rarely play videos repeatedly, but I have with this one. You’re right that his personality shines through; that can’t be taught.

    1. No, El Campo’s not east Texas, for sure, but I think the researchers were using the starting and stopping points of the early rail lines to mark their musical ‘territory.’ Whenever I need a little jolt of energy, boogie woogie does it every time.

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