Keyboard techniques

York, A. 2003. Keyboard techniques. in: Moore, A.F. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music Cambridge Cambridge University Press. pp. 130-140

Chapter titleKeyboard techniques
AuthorsYork, A.
EditorsMoore, A.F.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the itinerant pianists working in the whorehouses, gambling dens, bars and lumber camps of the American South played in a style known as barrelhouse. Blues, gospel and boogie-woogie piano styles all emerged from barrelhouse and so to understand the roots of these styles it is to the early days of barrelhouse that we must turn. The “race” recording industry was not underway until the 1920s and so the only sources that we have for studying the pianists of the pre-recording era are the occasional piano roll and the written and recorded recollections of a younger generation of “piano professors.” Therefore this chapter can only recount a partial history, trying to draw together fragments of a much deeper culture into something coherent. This I have done by examining the playing techniques that unite and separate these interwoven styles, their genesis, transformation and cross-genre transplantation that has so informed the development of popular music through the twentieth century.

The early rural and urban barrelhouses, juke joints and honky-tonks were bars where entertainers sporting exotic-sounding stage names such as Papa Lord God, No Leg Kenny and Drive' Em Down would play on “honkytonk” sounding pianos. Some pianists only played barrelhouse blues in their performances, others would combine blues with ragtime, popular songs and classical pieces. These piano “crushers” or “pounders” had to make themselves heard over the noise of the bar often at the expense of accuracy and certainly without much in the way of formal technique. Combined with the function of providing dance music, these conditions helped to form an aesthetic that was quite unique.

Keywordspiano, keyboards, blues, gospel, barrelhouse, boogie-woogie
Book titleThe Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music
Page range130-140
PublisherCambridge University Press
Publication dates
Place of publicationCambridge
SeriesCambridge Companions to Music
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Web address (URL)

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