Sunday was a dream come true for the city of Marshall as the Harrison County Historical Commission unveiled a historical marker plaque, officially celebrating the town as the “Birthplace of Boogie Woogie”.

“Jack Canson and John Tennison did an incredible amount of research to prove that what was the folktale is reality; and spent years proving that Boogie Woogie did start in Marshall,” said City Commissioner Gail Beil, who also serves as the HCHC historic marker chair.

She shared how Canson, a local researcher and promoter, joined forces with San Antonio Boogie Woogie expert and musicologist, Dr. John Tennison, to bring awareness of the musical genre’s heritage in Marshall.

“I had heard that there was unique music in East Texas and East Texas was uniquely responsible. I didn’t know it was Boogie Woogie. And I would’ve called Caddo Lake the birthplace of Boogie Woogie, but John made me learn much otherwise,” said Canson.

Tennison said Sunday marked about eight years and four months since the city of Marshall passed a city ordinance, due to his and Canson’s research, declaring Marshall as the birthplace of Boogie Woogie.

“This is a dream come true today,” Tennison told the crowd of historians, music lovers, city officials, and others attending the marker dedication, which was held in the Ginocchio Historic District on North Washington Avenue.

Beil said she considered the Labor Day weekend most fitting for the occasion because of the strong influence the music had in regard to the newly-freed African Americans, working in the Texas & Pacific Railway logging camps, who created the music as a form of entertainment.

“This Boogie Woogie music and this marker represent labor,” Beil said. “The people who started Boogie Woogie cut the crossties to go to the railroad from here west.”

Researching ‘Boogie Woogie’

According to the text of the marker, “Most logging camps had a piano in the barrel houses to keep the workers entertained and in the camps at night. It was in these barrel houses of East Texas logging camps where the first Boogie Woogies were played as largely untrained piano players developed techniques to entertain working-class audiences under loud, chaotic and often dangerous conditions. The driving left-hand bass patterns that are uniquely characteristic of Boogie Woogie piano, so highly suggestive of a steam locomotive chugging over iron rails, clearly are inspired and influenced by the sounds of the logging camp and the rail yard.”

Tennison said, in fact, the music remains the most influential musical genre ever to have originated in Texas. Giving his history with the music, Tennison, who is originally from Texarkana and started playing Boogie Woogie in first grade, said he wasn’t initially aware of the wealth of evidence that linked the genre’s origin to Texas until he played a trivia card game on the topic in 1985.

“Even though I had been playing Boogie Woogie since I was a child, I was not motivated to formally research the origins of Boogie Woogie until I played a trivia card game in 1985 in which it contained a card indicating that the term ‘Boogie’ was supposed to have originated in the Texarkana area during the musical era from 1890 to 1930,” Tennison said.

The card was vague, however, only asserting that the term derived in Texarkana, but not the music.

“I later learned that the music we call ‘Boogie Woogie’ was first called ‘Fast Western’ and first in Harrison County,” Tennison said, noting that it started around the early 1870s. “It was not until sometime later that the terms Boogie and Boogie Woogie appeared to have been first applied to the music we now know as Boogie Woogie.”

In his research, he discovered that his predecessors had concluded in the late 1930s that Boogie Woogie originated in East Texas. Tennison became the first to conclude that the exact genesis was Marshall.

“As far as I know, none of them had specifically cited Marshall in their research,” Tennison explained.

Tennison said, from research, he knew that the genre was widely regarded as being created by African Americans working on camps associated with the railroad construction and in camps in the lumber industry in the Pineywoods of East Texas. With that information he analyzed dates, eyewitness accounts and figures associated with names of places to determine exactly where the music originated.

“Rather than begin with a bias and favor of any particular municipality, I let the evidence lead me and the evidence led me to Marshall,” said Tennison.

Meeting Marshall

In 2004, Tennison founded the Boogie Woogie Foundation, also known as BoWoFo, a nonprofit organization established to foster research, promote and increase the general public knowledge of the origin, history and broad influence that the Boogie Woogie style has had. He began publishing his research findings on the foundation’s website, BoWoFo.org. It eventually caught the attention of a Marshall resident, the late Donna Musselman, co-owner of the Three Oaks Bed and Breakfast located near Marshall Depot.

“In 2009, Donna contacted me and said she thought it would be a good idea for me to come to Marshall and present my research to city leaders,” Tennison said.

Taking her up on the idea, Musselman put him in touch with a city leader, who led him to other key officials.

“As a result I was invited to Marshall on Jan. 18, 2010, to present my Boogie Woogie research to the Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Tennison recalled.

That same evening, he had the pleasure of meeting Jack Canson while doing a Boogie Woogie performance at Marshall’s Blue Frog Grill. Tennison said Canson and his wife, Nancy, would become immensely important to honoring and raising public awareness of Marshall’s heritage of Boogie Woogie.

“Later that same year on May 13, 2010, is when the Marshall City Commission met and unanimously approved the city ordinance declaring Marshall to be the Birthplace of Boogie Woogie; so it’s been about eight years and four months later. As a result of everything that’s happened, I am delighted to be participating in this ceremony that would further memorialize the history of Boogie Woogie,” Tennison said.

“I also want to thank Gail Beil and Tom Speir and all members of the Texas Historical Commission and Harrison County Historical Commission for their hard work as supporting and bringing the Boogie Woogie marker into existence,” he added.

Acknowledgements

Tennison gave a special thanks to Alan Loudermilk, a local patent attorney who restored the former Ginocchio Hotel, located next to Marshall Depot, turning it into a fine dining restaurant that sells Loudermilk’s own trademarked “Boogie Woogie” beer.

“I especially want to thank Alan Loudermilk for having allowed the marker to be placed at this location and having done the physical and highly efficient work to get it placed here. The marker has been placed near the historic Texas and Pacific Depot in a location where you can both see the marker and have the (Marshall) Depot in the backdrop, which will hopefully make for many great photographs,” said Tennison.

“Of all the buildings that currently exist, the Texas & Pacific Depot in Marshall is the most symbolic to the earliest Boogie Woogie performances as the Depot lies at the geographical center of gravity for which Boogie Woogie spread along the Texas and Pacific tracks running north, east and west from this point,” he continued. “I call this place in Marshall for which the tracks run in those directions, ‘Boogie Woogie Point.’ I’m now thrilled to be able to tell people when coming to Marshall, be sure to visit the historical marker at ‘Boogie Woogie Point’, toward the Texas and Pacific Depot, (and) have some Boogie Woogie beer and dinner at The Ginocchio.”

“There’s a lot of (resonance) here as a result of everything that’s happened,” Tennison said. “I’m grateful. I’m happy about that.”

He additionally thanked Jack Canson for the insurmountable work he devoted to author the final text for the historical marker.

“I thank him for his diligent and uncompromising work in getting the wording of the marker correct, truthful and eloquently written such that the citizens of Marshall and Texas, in general, can be proud,” Tennison said.

Canson thanked his wife, Nancy, for having the foresight to create the “Marshall, Texas Birthplace of Boogie Woogie” Facebook page, with Tennison’s blessing, after learning about his research in 2010.

“That more than any other thing is what cemented Marshall’s right to trademark the slogan ‘Birthplace of Boogie Woogie,’” said Canson.

Canson noted how relevant the musical roots are to Marshall’s history today. Its relevance is evident by the acts of Loudermilk, for example, who, as only a visitor to Marshall at the time, was so impressed with Marshall’s Boogie Woogie legacy that he decided to make Marshall his home and contribute to the community.

“So when people wonder what good is Boogie Woogie doing the city of Marshall being the birthplace ... uh, hello, how about Alan Loudermilk and all he’s doing,” Canson said, referring to Loudermilk’s significant renovation projects in the Ginocchio Historic District.

“There’s a man that knows a good thing when he sees it,” said Canson.

Tennison said the historic marker is dedicated in memory of the late Barney Canson, who contributed his expertise in music, film and video production to Marshall’s Birthplace of Boogie Woogie program; and also in memory of Omar Sharriff, a popular piano player who grew up in Marshall, starred in the “Boogie Woogie Homecoming Concert” and relocated to the town as artist-in-residence. Tennison said it’s additionally dedicated in memory of Donna Musselman, who played a pivotal role in making his research known to city officials.

Tom Speir, chairman of the HCHC, thanked all for sharing in the special occasion.

“The Harrison County Historical Commission and Texas Historical Commission have designated this marker because Boogie Woogie is a significant part of Texas history and Harrison County history,” said Speir. “The official Texas Marker Historical Program helps bring attention to community treasures and the importance of their preservation.

“This designation is a tool that will increase public awareness of important cultural resources,” Speir said. “It is vital that as we move forward, we do not forget our past.

“Not only will this Texas Historical Marker provide awareness in the community of our fascinating history, but it will become a building block to the promotion of local tourism,” said Speir.

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