BLUES STORIES: Barrelhouse Blues, pianos and women in the 20s and 30s.

For this first blog post I felt like starting with something that I am curious about and that is currently in my “I wanna know more” list, so please be aware that this is just a starting point and not at all a complete and exhaustive read. Still, I hope it will give you some ideas on Barrelhouse blues, pianos and women in the 20s and 30s, and maybe it will encourage you to research further into this.

So let’s start with… What is Barrelhouse blues?

Let’s start with defining the Barrelhouse first… as the name itself anticipates, it is called Barrelhouse a bar where whiskey is served straight from the barrel.

The barrelhouses of the rural South were rough wooden shacks where African American laborers gathered to drink and dance at the edge of small towns and levee camps. The up-tempo piano blues that developed in these establishments came to be called barrelhouse, as well, as in “I want to hear some barrelhouse tonight” and in an overly simplified way, it was a sped up form of rural blues, meant specifically for dancing. 

So I kind of revealed it already: what was specific to Barrelhouse blues was the way of playing the piano! It was adapted to the polyrhythmic traditions (percussive use in imitation of African “hun” drums) and to the goliardic mood of the workers (who wanted to dance after a hard day’s work), as well as to the noise of the barrelhouse, that forced the musicians to beat hard on the piano keys. This also allowed to disguise the not-very-finely tuned pianos, as in fact the musicians had to make up for the shortcomings of the instrument with the mobility of their fingers.

The barrelhouse spread in Southern states, and later also to northern cities, following the routes of migration. The departure from the rural Southern blues came mainly in Kansas City, where a rough, rhythmic and percussive style was formed, and in Chicago, where a generation of highly skilled specialists was formed. This raw, high-spirited piano playing eventually morphed into boogie-woogie–a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music.

As Memphis Minnie proves, Barrelhouse could be played on guitar too…

Why did I mention women before? The answer is actually pretty simple: many barrelhouses and juke joints were run by women, who eventually also became the entertainment of the nights.

Women club owners have been a vital part of the whole jazz and blues history and continue to maintain the spaces and places of this music.

Lil Johnson – My stove is in good conditions

Juke joints and Barrelhouses were the kind of business women turned to as a means to provide for themselves and their families and often they would run these businesses without the help of any men.

The blues singer Sandra Hall was the daughter of a female owner, who herself continued the tradition of her mother. In an interview by Pearson from 2003, she said that her grandmother would cook up a batch of fish (“Fish Fries Fridays”) and sell Black Label beer. Then the grandmother would play the piano, and the Hall sisters would sing.

This is how ART is born.

I’ll be forever grateful to all these talented souls for gifting us with the preciousness of this music.

Lucille Bogan – Coffee Grindin’ Blues

Well, this is all from me for today, here below you find the source list I have been using to investigate on this topic… if you wish to go deeper on the few things I’ve been writing about, there you find a lot more that is absolutely worth reading!

Also… What is in your “I wanna know more” list? Send me a message and let me know!
I’d be happy to help you in your research process!

Source list:
  • Devi, The Language of the Blues from Alcorub to Zuzu
  • Hazzard Gordon, Jookin’
  • Martorella, Blues (available only in Italian)
  • Attrep, From Juke Joints to Jazz Jams: The Political Economy of Female Club Owners
  • Pearson, Jook Women
  • Nardone, Roomful of Blues: Jukejoints and the Cultural Landscape of the Mississippi Delta.

Published by Bibi

Blues dancer, insegnante e dj - Viaggiatrice compulsiva - Amante della vita, della natura e dei gatti!

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