Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport’s business card claimed he was “The Man that Gave America Boogie-Woogie,” and as Dave Van Ronk used to say, there’s no point in argument. He had as good a claim as anyone, and better than most. In 1925, before any of the other great blues piano players got on record, he recorded a fine version of this piece with a vocal by Dora Carr, his longtime partner on the black vaudeville circuit. It wasn’t titled “boogie woogie,” but that’s what the style would be called after a fellow named Pine Top Smith hit three years later with a piece called “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” and Davenport always claimed he helped Smith arrange and title that record. (The facts are murky, and Peter Silvester, who writes this up in A Left Hand Like God, remains agnostic while seeming to confirm that Davenport helped Smith get the record gig.)
Be that as it may, Davenport was a terrific pianist — check out his “State Street Jive” if you want to hear a truly amazing bassline — and a fine singer, but he will always be remembered for his namesake piece. It quickly became ubiquitous, and every blues and honky-tonk piano player had to work up a version. The Mississippi Delta player Louise Johnson did a nice one titled “On the Wall,” with comments by Son House, who apparently had stolen Johnson’s affections from Charlie Patton during the ride north to record, and there’s a classic reworking by Ray Charles as “Mess Around,” which was also memorably recorded by Professor Longhair.
Along with pianists, it was picked up and reworked by players of other instruments — there’s a kind of sappy big band version by Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother), and two of my favorite versions are by the Mississippi mandolin player Charlie McCoy, one an instrumental titled “Jackson Stomp” and the other a vocal blues called “That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away.” That was the first piece I ever worked out on mandolin, and I’m pretty sure my guitar version came out of it — though it may have happened the other way around. Either way, I worked it up in the early 1980s and was very happy with the arrangement, because it’s so simple. I came out of a ragtime blues tradition, and Dave Van Ronk had taken me further down the piano ragtime road with some diversions into swing, but this is just some simple riffs in E, inspired by piano but falling naturally on the guitar.