Texas Piano Blues – 1920’s & 1930’s by Jeff Harris
Piano blues seems to have gotten overshadowed by the emphasis on the guitar. Today the piano blues tradition is in steep decline. As Paul Oliver observed: “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues …A cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas”.
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” (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.
The Santa Fe group acquired their name not only because they rode the Santa Fe from job to job, but also because, according to the Houston Pianist Robert Shaw, “anyone enquiring the name of a selection was invariably told, “that’s the ‘Santa Fe’.” The style was rooted in the wide- open towns of Richmond, Houston and Galveston. As Oliver notes, “here were to be heard the hard-hitting boogie and blues pianists like Conish Burks and Son Becky, Rob Cooper and Black Boy Shine, Andy Boy, Robert ‘Fud’ Shaw and Edwin ‘Buster’ Pickens, and the singers Joe Pullum and Walter ‘Cowboy’ Washington. …There is a broad stylistic and thematic similarity in the music of the pianists who followed the Santa Fe through the barrelhouses of Ford Bend, Houston and Galveston counties, and down in the Brazos Bottoms. …Immediately recognisable with its rolling basses, its often ragtimey blues accompaniments, its anticipatory beat—this is the Santa Fe group.” This group travelled the branches of the Santa Fe line to the lumber camps, oil fields and towns. In the cities “they were to be heard in the red light district of Galveston’s Post Office Street or Church Street, on Houston’s West Dallas Street or in Richmond’s Mud Alley”.
Among the best of the Santa Fe group were Rob Cooper of Houston, and Andy Boy of Galveston. Both men show the influence of Hersal Thomas and both men’s style share strong ragtime elements. Stylistically, Oliver notes, “Andy Boy (Boy was his surname) and Rob Cooper were a few years older than Hersal Thomas” and “careful listening to the playing of Andy Boy reveals hints of the connection between them; in spite of the themes that he sang and played with their somewhat more modern sound, Galveston born Andy Boy was a pianist whose formative years were spent in the company of Hersal and his fellow pianists”.
Andy Boy cut only eight sides under his own name as well as backing both Joe Pullum and Walter ‘Cowboy’ Washington. Andy Boy had a rough, expressive voice offset with his sprightly blues piano laced with ragtime flourishes. Andy Boy’s songs are filled with vivid imagery, humour, clever wordplay and a times a deep pathos. One of his most memorable numbers was the rollicking “House Raid Blues” (a close cousin to Little Hat Jones’ “Kentucky Blues”) as Andy Boy wittily describes a police break-in at Charlie Shiro’s Galveston club: “Then out the widow I did hop/Followed closely by a cop/Then around the corner I did run/I heard the shot from some law’s gun/Said it ain’t no use in shooting ‘cause I ain’t gonna be here long/…Then I was long gone, from Kentucky, long gone/Got away lucky and left so keen/I left like a submarine.” The vigorously sung “Church Street Blues” was perhaps his finest number where he evocatively sang: “Going down to the Gulf/Watch the waves come in . . .” and “I was born and raised in that good old seaport town/Where we all had fun and stomped The Grinder down.” In the sombre “Evil Blues” he sang: “I got the evil blues, prejudicy on my mind” and was in quite a different frame of mind on the bouncy “Jive Blues” where he sings “Now the good book says thou shall not break the ten commandment law/I’m gonna break the ten commandments on you’re jaw”.
Both Andy Boy and Rob Cooper play on the records of Joe Pullum, one of the era’s most distinctive and imaginative vocalists. As Tony Russell describes, “Pullum’s voice was pitched very high and clear, yet it always sounded relaxed, and his timing was impeccable. The effect- plaintive, appealing, penetrating-was like that of a muted trumpet solo, piercing it’s way through the blues, occasionally soaring in sudden leaps. …The piano-playing behind Pullum is always satisfying stuff, whether the work of Andy Boy (who was on the third and longest session) or that of Robert Cooper (on the other three)”.
Cooper’s lively, ragtimey piano can be heard to good effect on the Texas staple “Cows, See That Train Comin'” and the mostly instrumental “Blues With Class” while Andy Boy’s accompaniment displays more invention then own his own records. Cooper’s solo output under his own includes only two numbers; two marvellous versions of “West Dallas Drag”, a stomping, good time ragtime number that makes one wish he had recorded more solo sides. Any Boy also backed the tough voiced Walter ‘Cowboy’ Washington on all four of his numbers, providing wonderful backing to evocative tales like “Ice Pick Mama” and “West Dallas Woman” (a reference to the main stem of Houston’s Fourth Ward).
Harold Holiday, known as Black Boy Shine, was one of the acknowledged leaders among the Santa Fe group of pianists. He recorded more prolifically then the rest; cutting 18 issued sides in 1936 and 1937 as well as leaving a batch of unissued sides in the can. As Oliver relates: “He played in a mellow style, with a subtler release than the sharp snap favoured by several of the piano men, and he sang in a slightly world-weary voice of the days when the “Chophouse” operated on West Dallas Street. It was a haven for pianists down on their luck, where the proprietor would prepare soup and sandwiches for them, and cook any rabbits they’d managed to club on the waste lots that still dotted the black wards of the city.” He describes this vividly in one of his best numbers, “Dog House Blues”: “Well I’m going to the Dog House/Down On West Dallas Street/When I get broke and hungry/I know I can get a feed.” “When times were better”, Oliver wrote, “and the barrelhouses were open again, Shine was to be found at Sugarland, near the sugar refineries and the State Farm Unit, or way out at Richmond. The latter is a run-down, predominately black township still, an unlovely place of old buildings fronting on the railroad tracks close to the Brazos River. Behind the tracks the roads fall back steeply for a couple of blocks to the old haunt of hustlers and whores, Mud Alley. There on Mud Alley was the Brown House, Shine’s base when he wasn’t travelling…” Both places feature in Shine’s songs; In “Sugarland Blues” he sings “I dump sugar all day/Clean until broad daylight/I done everything for that woman/Still she don’t treat me right” and in “Brown House Blues” he sings “Woke up this morning with the muddy alley blues/ I lost all my money and my alley shoes/I was playing boogie-woogie and having my fun” and then goes on describe a raid in detail, obviously a common occurrence in these kind of joints. In general his lyrics vividly reflect the harsher side of black life such as songs like “Hobo Blues” and “Ice Pick and Pistol Woman Blues”.
Both Pinetop Burks and Leon Calhoun known as Son Becky, at least on record, were more boisterous players then Shine. Both shared a single session in October 1937, each cutting six sides apiece. Oliver notes that “Black Boy Shine closely resembled Conish “Pinetop” Burks both in appearance and in piano style, at least in the recollections of their contemporaries. On record “Connie” Burks used more boogie bass figures than Shine and employed more varied approaches to his blues, a matter of some surprise to those who knew them, who considered Shine the better pianist. Burks was born and raised close by Richmond and heard all the good piano men as they passed through” Becky “…had been raised by a relative near Wharton and was known by her surname, as “Son” Becky. Becky played for country suppers and followed the barrelhouse circuit east to the Piney Woods. Here traditions met, with the Louisiana and E Texas pianists running into their Houston and Santa Fe contemporary Dave Alexander, who was known as Black Ivory King, was one of eastern group who worked the ‘Flying Crow’ line between his home to of Shreveport and Port Arthur on the Gulf Coast, where Ivory Joe Hunter knew him.” Burks lays down strong, propulsive boogie piano, displaying his skill on several fine extended solos and has a deep, expressive voice. His boogie piano is heard to good effect on “Fannie Mae Blues” a song addressed too his wife and the rollicking “Shake the Shack” which owes a strong debt to “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.” His “Mountain Jack Blues” features a thumping bass, ragtime flavour and is a variation of the Texas staple “”The Cows” while his “Jack of All Trades” was a re-working of Bernice Edwards’ blues of the same name. Becky was accompanied by a guitarist and a washboard player on some of his tracks, and the trio make an enjoyable ruckus on the driving “Midnight Trouble Blues” and “Mistreated Washboard Blues.” The more contemplative “Cryin’ Shame Blues” is a fine mid-tempo number featuring some strong rolling piano. King cut four sides in 1937 and had a simpler, less aggressive style than Burks and Becky. He was a fine rough voiced singer, using his limited range to fine effect particularly on the sublime “The Flying Crow” where he enhances the song with moans and piano flourishes that emulate the sound of the train. Trains also figure in “Match Box Blues” and “Gingham Dress (Alexander Blues)” while “Working For The PWA” is a fine topical number.
After discussing the early Texas piano players and the Santa Fe group we turn to Dallas which was the home of a number of distinctive piano players and singers they accompanied. Among them were Texas Bill Day, Neal Roberts, Willie Tyson, Whistlin’ Alex Moore and singer Billiken Johnson. Oliver notes that “as far as is known, they were more or less contemporaries, being born at the turn of the century (Alex Moore, specifically, in 1899).” He goes on to describe Dallas during this period: “Then there were 9000 blacks in Dallas, a quarter of the population. By 1930 they totalled just short of 50,000 and made up a significant part of the whole population. The hub of the black community was an area known as Central Tracks, where honky-tonks ‘saloons, beer-parlours and brothels were wedged between warehouses, furniture stores and places of entertainment like Ella B. Moore’s Park Theatre, or Hattie Burleson’s dance hall. Urban expansion in Dallas was largely due to its importance as a railhead, and many railroads whose names are familiar to blues collectors had termini there. Among them were the “Katy”, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas line; the Fort Worth and Denver; the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe; the Rock Island; and the Texas a Pacific, along whose line Central Tracks was situated”.
Despite the brash and nosey environment the “Dallas blues piano style of Dallas is slow or medium-paced and contemplative in its nature …Blues in the Dallas school is about Dallas; in fact no other blues schools, with the exception perhaps, of Chicago, gives us quite such a picture of the urban life which inspired it. ..These are blues that are intended to be listened to, with words that have a strange folk lyricism about them. Here the piano is used as a complementary poetic instrument, setting off the words and the mood of the blues instead of challenging it with pyrotechnic displays”.
It’s not surprising that the railroad figure prominently in the blues of Dallas. Singer Billiken Johnson was obviously well acquainted with the rail lines as they figure in number of his blues. Johnson is a key figure though he did not play piano. His speciality was vocal effects, and he was considered rather a clown by his blues musician friends. On “Frisco Blues” (a reference to the St. Louis—San Francisco line) Johnson provides the train sounds over the gently rolling piano of Neal Roberts who also sings. Johnson provides the same role on “Sun Beam Blues” (also known as the “Sunshine Special” that ran on the Missouri— Pacific line to St. Louis) evocatively imitating the lonesome train whistle as the unknown Fred Adams takes the vocals. Johnson also vocalizes on “Interurban Blues” which refers to the short haul trains which brought country people into the city. On these tracks Willie Tyson plays piano. Johnson’s vocal effects are also on display on “Billiken’s Weary Blues” with steady piano support from Texas Bill Day who plays in a similar style as the aforementioned Neal Roberts. Johnson surfaces again on Day’s lustily sung “Elm Street Blues” where the pianist sings: “Ellum Street’s paved in brass, Main Street’s paved in gold/I’ve got a good girl lives on East Commerce, I wouldn’t mistreat her to save nobody’s soul/These Ellum Street Women, Billiken, do not mean you no good/If you want to make a good woman, have to get on Haskell Avenue.” The song, as Oliver says, refers “…to the respective success of the black sector of “Deep Ellum”, or Elm Street, which ran by Central Tracks, and the downtown business sector of Main”.
Whistlin’ Alex Moore certainly knew intimately about this area as he related to Oliver: “Oh they were tough joints…I’d play them all, from North Dallas to the East Side…Froggy Bottom…Central Tracks…well they had just about everything up and down there from beer joints to saloons.” Moore was a resident of Dallas all his eighty years and had spent most of his working life as a cart driver, and later, hotel porter. Moore had a long career, punctuated by large recording gaps, cutting ten sides in 1929, sessions in 1947, 1951, sessions for Arhoolie and cut an album for Rounder the year before he died in 1988. Oliver describes Moore as a “folk blues poet par excellence” and “one of the most poetic blues singers on record, Alex Moore had developed as a remarkable pianist in the purest boogie and blues tradition with an eccentric inventive flair both in his vocals and his playing.” Moore’s poetic flair is on display on “Heart Wrecked Blues” and particularly his “West Dallas Woman” : “Met a woman in West Texas, she had been left out there all alone/Out by the “Hooking Cow” crossing, where I wasn’t even known/She fell for me, a raggedy stranger, standing in the drizzling rain/She said “Daddy I’ll follow you, tho’ I don’t know your name”/We snuggled closely together, muddy water round our feet/No place to call home, wet, hungry and no place to eat/The wolves howl till midnight, wild ox moan till day/The Man in the Moon looked down on us—but had nothing to say.” He displays a sly sense of humour on “They May Not Be My Toes” and “Blue Bloomer Blues” : “While standing at the car line, reckon’ what that old girl done/I said she hugged and kissed me and bit me on my tongue/I asked her to give me what mama did, when I was three months old/She said I’ll make you a sugar tit daddy, I can’t stand that to save my soul/She pulled off them bloom bloomers, begin to whine and frown.” Even tough tales like “Ice Pick Mama” and “Bull Con Blues” are laced with plenty of amusing wit.
Moore was perhaps the last of the early Texas piano although a couple of others survived long enough to make some latter day recording. Edwin ‘Buster’ Pickens and Robert Shaw ran around with the pianists who worked the Santa Fe railroad townships. Both Robert Shaw and Buster Pickens didn’t record under their own name until the 1960’s. Pickens did some session work, most notably behind Lightnin’ Hopkins and cut one full-length record in the 1960’s for the Heritage label. Oliver describes him in the 60’s, as “virtually the last of the barrelhouse and saw- mill pianists, for his contemporaries are nearly all dead …Pickens, born in 1915, was younger then many of them though he shared the work, and small, compact and tough, he is still playing. His world has been one of railroad routes and this is reflected in many of his blues.” A prime example is his “Santa Fe Train.” As Pickens himself noted: “I travelled by freight trains. I rode freight trains practically all over the country. …These other piano players-son Becky, Consih Burks, Black Boy Shine, Andy Boy, and all these men-they went out different routes- hardly ever paired up. Each lookin’ for his own bread.” Robert Shaw cut one 1963 album for Almanac which was reissued on the Arhoolie label, plus some additional sides in the 1970’s. All these sides are collected on the CD “The Ma Grinder” issued by Arhoolie. Like Pickens, Shaw was a member of the Santa Fe pianists and on his 60’s recordings plays dazzling dance tunes, in a relaxed boogie style, with touches of ragtime mixed in, and tough lowdown blues. As Shaw said: “When you listen to what I’m playing you got to see in your mind all them gals out there swinging their butts and getting the mens excited. otherwise you ain’t got the music rightly understood. I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything. I told them when to shake it, and when to hold back. That’s what this music is for.” His remarkable technique is in full display on the Texas piano staple, “The Ma Grinder”.
After World War II the early Texas piano tradition virtually evaporated. Oliver wrote that after “…the War, the juke boxes, and the law had combined to bring an end to both the barrelhouse circuit and the Texas piano player who, in Son Becky’s words had “spread some joy” on the Santa network. …The group dispersed: Andy Boy made his way to Kansas City where he was last heard of in the 1950’s, while Joe Pullum migrated to California. Rob Cooper disappeared after woman trouble, and Cowboy Washington was forgotten. Down on Houston’s McKinney Street they don’t stomp The Cows or The Ma Grinder any more”.
– Jeff Harris, host of Big Road Blues, Jazz90.1
- 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.
– Russell, Tony. Talking Blues 2 – Joe Pullum, Jazz Monthly, No 191 (1971), p. 23-24.
– Oliver, Paul and Smith, Francis. Notes accompanying The Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929, 1980, Magpie.
– Oliver, Paul. Conversation With The Blues. Horizon Press, New York, 1965.
– McCormick, Mack. Notes accompanying The Ma Grinder, 1993, Arhoolie.