Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Number 3
30 December 1938
Pete Johnson and Joe Turner record "Roll 'em Pete"

Boogie Woogie

From North East to West Texas, from lumber and turpentine camps to train yards, the sound of boogie woogie was a long time in gestation with a brief flowering of popularity. Mimicking the movement and the revolution of the trains that took the music north across America, reaching Chicago and then New York. Adopted then abandoned by urban sophisticates in favour of more sophisticated (read, more tamed) piano styles. At its zenith, in the playing of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, it was fast, rhythmic, propulsive, almost manic in its intensity but allowing for significant variation in both left and right hand patterns. Even more than its ragtime predecessor (which seems to share some characteristics with European piano music of the likes of Debussy and Satie), boogie woogie was a uniquely American, uniquely black form. 

Now seen more as a style or technique than a genuine form of piano music, no-one, to my mind, has carried it further than the three great stylists of the thirties and forties. Possibly only Jerry Lee Lewis perpetuated the form, albeit by combining it with western swing and hillbilly boogie piano styles of the likes of Moon Mullican. Boogie woogie fell victim to its perception as a novelty music, with technicians using it to demonstrate prowess rather than invention, and with an increasing reliance on formula and automation. It came to smell too much of working men and roughhouse Saturday nights for the highball nightclub crowd.

From Spirituals to Swing

For a while, though, boogie woogie possessed all the shock of the new as it tore out of Texas on the rails heading north. In 1938, John Hammond asked the pianist Pete Johnson and vocalist Joe Turner to perform at Hammond's seminal From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall alongside Lux Lewis and Ammons as well as Count Basie, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and others. The idea was to showcase black American musical forms going from choral spirituals through to big swing bands. Because it featured black performers appearing before a non-segregated audience, finance was difficult to access until the American Communist Party stepped in. Their appearance at this concert earned Johnson and Turner a recording session for the Vocalion record company in New York in December 1938.

Johnson and Turner

Pete Johnson and Joe Turner were from Kansas City and began appearing together in the 1920s. It is easy to imagine their raucous style being developed to make sure they could be heard in the less than sedate clubs of the time. Turner worked as a barman and chucker-outer and would occasionally vocalise to Johnson's accompaniment. The other masters of boogie woogie tended to work more as soloists than Johnson.

Success for Johnson only lasted until the end of the 1940s when boogie woogie fell out of fashion. Turner was to have more success, going on to record a hit version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954.

Roll 'em Pete

The recording of "Roll 'em Pete" (note: there is no comma after 'em, rendering the title grammatically incorrect, and it is described as a fast blues on the record label - it was not described as boogie woogie until its later reissue on Columbia) is an engine designed to generate and to communicate excitement. It is its raison d'etre. Johnson sets off at a furious pace which he maintains for the 2 minutes plus duration. Witnesses recall Johnson and Turner performing this song for up to half an hour at a time but this could be an exaggerated memory. Certainly the piece does lend itself to improvisation for as long as the performers' imagination and endurance last. The recorded version truncates any extended improvisation and condenses the piece so that it is over before one has a chance to work out properly what is going on.

It is an instrumental with vocal accompaniment rather the other way round. As its title indicates, the point of the song is to demonstrate Johnson's speed, power and dexterity of both performance and imagination. He produces a succession of accompanying phrases that vary with each verse before unleashing a solo of demented perspicacity. The repetition and the variation within repetition are sublime. Johnson, and Lux Lewis and Ammons, had achieved peak boogie. The only way to go beyond their playing was, as Conlon Nancarrow found out, to have a machine do it (a player piano in Nancarrow's case).

Turner meanwhile performs his supporting role well. The lyrics are effectively meaningless being a succession of blues phrases from other songs, chosen for their rhythmic cadence and their fit for Turner's staccato delivery. The standardness of their form means that they do not detract from the purpose of the piece: the focus on Johnson. Lots of people like to imbue art with meaning, especially painting and music. In order to enjoy and appreciate a work of art fully it is felt necessary to understand the work's meaning. "Roll 'em Pete" is a work without meaning. It defies meaning. It is the thing itself and has no meaning beyond this. It has no repercussions once it finishes playing and seeks neither to elevate not improve. By the end, Turner has given up on words and has resorted to syllables and parts of words, which he could just as effectively have done from the start. The Italian futurists from the early 1910s praised the modern age with its rapid forms of transport. Marinetti's free-word poetry sought to liberate words from the constraints of typography and syntax. Just like Big Joe Turner does here. Russolo used acoustic noise generators to control dynamics and pitch of sound. Twenty years later, Johnson and Turner give us the real art of noise.

Hear the art of noise here.