Boogie Woogie: Born In The Backwoods Of America Before the Civil War, the town of Marshall was a center of Texas' plantation economy. It's now trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination for weekenders from Dallas and Houston. And it's reaching into its past to grab on to an almost forgotten musical legacy: boogie woogie piano.

Boogie Woogie: Born In The Backwoods Of America

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

We're going now to the East Texas town of Marshall. Before the Civil War, it was the center of the state's plantation economy. The county, Harrison County, says it once had more plantations and more slaves than any other county in Texas. After Reconstruction, it also had more lynchings.

Well, today, like so many small towns in the area, Marshall is trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination for weekenders from Dallas and Houston.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, it's doing that by highlighting a lesser known piece of Marshall history - its role in a musical revolution.

WADE GOODWYN: On the vast plantations of Marshall, Texas, cotton was king. But the beautiful fields of white were surrounded in every direction with lucrative pine forests. When slavery died writhing on the graves of 620,000 American soldiers, the black men in those logging camps suddenly became workers.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: And to try to keep these newly freed men from walking away to a better life, the logging camp owners built what were called barrel houses. They looked like an airplane hangar made out of a giant wooden barrel. In these places, a new sound was born, an early seed of rock 'n' roll. It was called by several names at first, but they finally settled on boogie woogie.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: To the white world of East Texas, this music was invisible. But plenty of upstanding churchgoing black women knew all about boogie woogie, and they thought it came straight from the devil. Say the name out loud and it even sounded godless.

Mr. DAVID ALEXANDER ELAM (Musician): My mother was just a stone-starched Baptist. She said, boy, you're not going to play that devil's music in my house. You know, if you're going to play music, you're going to church. So I needed to get on a piano, so that's where I went.

GOODWYN: David Alexander grew up in Marshall, Texas in the 1940s and '50s. Unfortunately, for his Baptist mother, his father was one of the best boogie woogie piano players in East Texas - not in the house, though.

Mr. ALEXANDER: I just used to watch him and his brothers in the backyard. You know, they'd be playing guitars and singing the blues like, you know, like, Robert Johnson and all them guys, you know?

GOODWYN: By the time Alexander was 17 in 1955, his fingers could fly over the keyboard. It was a dangerous time and place for young black men. The Civil Rights Movement was beginning to whisper across the South, and the flaming crosses of the Ku Klux Klan lit up the East Texas night.

Mr. ALEXANDER: One day, I was downtown, and then I saw two white dudes beating a black dude. Then the police drove up. And they got out and stood and looked at it a while, and then they turned their backs while the guy kept beating him, and they lit up cigarettes.

GOODWYN: Alexander watched as the black man was beaten to a pulp. He approached another black man who was also watching.

Mr. ALEXANDER: I said, man, ain't these people going to do something about it? He said, man, don't talk about it. It's a white folks thing, man. You'll wind up getting killed.

GOODWYN: But Alexander couldn't stop thinking and talking about what he'd seen. He was appalled and wanted the black community to hit back. His family and friends told him to get out of East Texas before he was found hanging in the woods. So that's what he did. He left for California with his talent in his pocket and never looked back and never came back either, ever.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: For the next five decades in Oakland and San Francisco, he made records and played nightclubs for an enthusiastic and increasingly integrated audience.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of train whistle)

GOODWYN: Back in Marshall, as the 1950s became the 1960s, the town began to struggle. The Texas & Pacific Railroad, which had headquarters in Marshall, began to shrivel and die. But the town still retained a Southern charm.

Buddy Power is fifth generation from Marshall. His predecessors were Confederate officers, and his father owned all the grocery stores in town until Wal-Mart put them out of business, but he is Marshall's mayor.

Mayor BUDDY POWER (Marshall, Texas): It was a wonderful place. We had the milling elevator, which was always cooking something. We had two bread companies. The aroma of the bread filled the whole town. Absolutely a close-knit family-type community. And we're hoping to get back there someday.

GOODWYN: Last year, fate intervened in the form of a San Antonio doctor. By day, Dr. John Tennison is a psychiatrist, but by night, Tennison is one of the country's leading boogie woogie aficionados. He's got thousands of recordings. And Tennison knew something about Marshall, Texas that Marshall itself had forgotten.

Dr. JOHN TENNISON: In Texas, historically, in the 19th century, African-Americans were present in the greatest numbers in Harrison County of which Marshall, of course, is the county seat. And oral histories indicate that boogie woogie was first played in the early 1870s, which is the same time in which the Texas & Pacific Railroad was getting its start.

GOODWYN: Tennison says those piano players moved from one logging camp to another on board the Texas & Pacific. And that's how boogie woogie started, the sound of the T&P locomotive running wide open through the backwoods.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: And on Martin Luther King Day 2010, John Tennison told Marshall about this amazing style of black music that had been born in their woods. Not a single person on the city council believed him, Mayor Buddy Power included.

Mayor POWER: I wouldn't say I was skeptical. I just didn't believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: For Marshall's white community, this boogie woogie thing seemed like it had been dropped from Mars. For Marshall's black leaders, Tennison's presentation stirred something forgotten, like, oh, yeah, I remember that, even though maybe they didn't, really.

Although almost all the boogie woogie piano players with ties to the city had died, Tennison told them there was one guy in California who might still be alive. Finally convinced, Mayor Power and the city council asked Tennison to try to find this man named Alexander and ask if he would consider coming home.

Mr. ALEXANDER: I thought maybe it was a joke, you know? I said, what does this guy think - he think I'm stupid? Marshall, Texas? What you're going to do, hang me?

GOODWYN: It took a long time for Dr. Tennison to find Alexander.

When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, David Alexander changed his to Omar Sharriff.

Tennison told Sharriff: Marshall wanted him to come home for good and be the town's boogie woogie ambassador. They'd pay for an apartment and a stipend, and he would be exhibit A of a musical history Marshall had forgotten but now wanted to remember again.

Mr. ALEXANDER: We want to do something with you. We got some friends -people down there who admire you. I said, really? He said, yeah. He said, are you interested? I said, why not? I said, nobody around here interested in me.

GOODWYN: So, last month, Omar Sharriff came home to Marshall.

(Soundbite of song, "Great Balls of Fire")

Mr. ALEXANDER: (Singing) You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane.

GOODWYN: His first two concerts were the biggest integrated gatherings in Marshall's history. When asked what event came in third, both blacks and whites in Marshall shook their heads like there really was no third place.

Sharriff's second concert in December attracted the attention of two of the best boogie woogie players in the country: Detroit's Bob Seeley and Bob Baldori, who flew in to play with Sharriff.

The concert hall was packed out the door. Omar Sharriff is having trouble processing it all.

Mr. ALEXANDER: The mayor, man, he said, call me Buddy. I said - he say, all my friends call me Buddy. I said to myself, well, this is the mayor of Marshall, Texas want me to be his friend? It's nothing like it used to be. It's another world.

GOODWYN: Thomas Wolfe says you can't go home again. But maybe if you wait 53 years, things will have changed just enough.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

(Soundbite of music)


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