By now, you are aware that I like at least some, maybe most, classical music, but there’s more to the story…
When I was a boy growing up in Hicksville, New York, I enjoyed going to the train station. I was told back then that the Long Island Railroad ended in Hicksville. I just recently found out that Mr. Hicks owned the railroad when he was alive. So, it all sort of makes sense. Nowadays it goes much further out on the Island.
Diesel engines were just starting to show up in the mix when I was a kid. Most of what I saw at the station were steam engines. There were no safety rails or fences, no yellow lines you had to stay behind, and no one looking out for a small boy who wanted to stand close to the tracks. I remember standing there as a steam engine rolled in slowly to a stop. The wheels were taller than I was. The powerful rhythm of the engine was nearly deafening. The motion of the linkages was complicated and fascinating. It was a dance really, a dance of power. I was transfixed by it all. I stood there willing myself not to move, taking in every noise, motion, and vibration I could.
Beholding a steam engine in motion conveys many things to your mind — power, strength, speed, distance. And the one thing that holds all those experiences together is rhythm. You don’t hear much of steam engines in music, certainly not the music of today. However, there was a day when there was a music that had that same sense of rhythm, that same sense of unstoppable power, Boogie Woogie. Sometimes referred to as Eight to the Bar, Boogie Woogie is music that was built for the solo piano. It shows up in bands sometimes, but the piano is its home. Four names come to my mind in this discussion, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jim Yancey. Certainly there are others both before and after these men, but these are the ones with which I am familiar. Among these four, I would rate Albert Ammons as my favorite.
So, why do I like Boogie Woogie? Because it sounds, for the most part, like train engines — the relentless left hand providing the rhythm that drives the train forward. It has that sense of a machine with a purpose, an unstoppable one.
There’s plenty to read about Boogie Woogie, but listening to it tells you more than anything. I would recommend two CD’s. One is an early CD reproduction of recordings made by Albert Ammons. On that CD, you will also find his version of “The St. Louis Blues,” written by W. C. Handy, and published in 1914. Now admittedly it’s a blues piece not Boogie Woogie, but blues is a close cousin. In a way, Boogie Woogie is blues without words.
The CD is titled, “Albert Ammons The Boogie Woogie Man.” Also included on it are four of what I remember to be eight great duets featuring Pete Johnson with Albert Ammons. I like “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Sixth Avenue Express” the best. I’m a sucker for polyrhythm. Here is the Amazon link. See if you hear the same train engines I do.
A second CD I would recommend is called “Albert Ammons 1936 – 1939,” and it is another great source of the music. “Chicago on My Mind,” is my favorite on that CD. [I just noticed that the price shown on the link is $125. On the Amazon site there are several options for price. That is not the Amazon price. That is from a separate source. The Amazon price is around $27.]