James P. Johnson: From "Carolina Shout" To "The Charleston"

Franklin Bruno
Alien Bruno Johnson
(from left) James P. Johnson, Fess Williams, and Freddie Moore (1948). Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

Here’s how Willie “The Lion” Smith told it:

The Gullahs would start out early in the evening dancing two-steps, waltzes, scottishces ; but as the night wore on and the liquor began to work, they would start improvising their own steps and that was when they wanted us to get-in-the-alley, real lowdown. . . . It was from the improvised dance steps that the Charleston dance originated. All the older folks remember it became a rage during the 1920s and all it really amounted to was a variation danced at the Casino and this usually caused the piano player to make up his own musical variation to fit the dancing. One of James P. Johnson’s variations was later published as a number called “The Charleston,” and was used in the show Runnin’ Wild on Broadway in 1923.1

We can fill in some of Smith’s references. The Gullah (or Geechee) were African Americans from the coastal lowlands and sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina.2 Their isolation resulted in a language and culture marked by West African retentions, including ring-shout dances and call-and-response worship practices that survived slavery.3 By the turn of the century, many Gullah worked on Atlantic shipping lines that docked in New York. The Casino, or Jungles Casino, was a basement dance-hall—legally licensed as Drake’s Dancing Class, though Smith recalled “no teachers”—on Manhattan’s East 62nd Street, blocks from the piers. In the 1910s, the Casino was one of several neighborhood establishments where working-
class black patrons could listen and dance to music most often supplied by a lone pianist.4 The work required knowledge of rags, blues, and current pop and show tunes, the ability to improvise for hours on end, and an unflagging left hand. Willie the Lion, Luckey Roberts, and Eubie Blake were among the “ticklers” who held court at such venues, as well as semi-commercial rent parties and the occasional brothel, on the cusp of the ragtime and early jazz eras.

James P. Johnson figures in contemporaries’ recollections as this cohort’s most finished player and best all-around musician—the man to cut, if one could. Best known as an early architect of stride piano, his name often appears in jazz writing as a bookend: an earlier issue of Sound American quotes Gary Giddins’s description of Jaki Byard’s stylistic range “from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor.”5 But from the 1910s through the 1940s, Johnson pursued a varied career as a solo pianist, bandleader and sideman, accompanist to Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, and composer. A list of his publications runs to nearly 300 titles.6 The most celebrated is “Carolina Shout” (c. 1918), a rhythmically advanced, technically challenging rag that became a test-piece for a generation of pianists.7 Its title, as with “The Charleston,” is a clue to its origins.

Johnson was hardly a Gullah. His mother, Lottie, was from Virginia, not the Carolinas ; Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1894, and the family moved to New York City before his teens. But he saw and heard what he called “shout” dancing and dance-calls based on traditional forms at social gatherings with Southern-born family and friends.8 He later averred, “A lot of my music is based on set, cotillion, and other southern dance steps and rhythms . . . I find I have a strong feeling for these dances that goes way back.”9

By 1913–4, as a tickler at the Jungles Casino and Jim Allen’s farther uptown, he put that feeling into practice. “The ‘pupils’ danced sets, schottisches, and ‘The Metropolitan Glide,’ a new step. I played for these regulation dances, but instead of playing straight, I’d break into a rag in certain places. . . . My ‘Carolina Shout’ was another type of ragtime arrangement of a set dance piece of this period.”10 “Carolina Balmoral,” “Mule Walk,” and “Gut Stomp” had a similar impetus ; Johnson also suggests that Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” was “taken from cotillion music.”11 Other recollections match Smith’s:

The people who came to the Jungles Casino were mostly from around Charleston, South Carolina, and other places in the South. Most of them worked for the Ward Line as longshoreman or on ships that called on southern coast ports. There were even some Gullahs among them. The Charleston, which became a popular dance step on its own, was just a regulation cotillion step without a name. It had many variations—all danced to the rhythm that everybody knows now. It was while playing for these southern dancers that I composed a number of Charlestons—eight in all—all with the same rhythm. One of these later became my famous “Charleston” when it hit Broadway.12

“The rhythm that everybody knows,” needless to say, is the syncopated two-note motif—one attack on the downbeat, the second on “two-and”—heard throughout “The Charleston.”13 Johnson did not invent this melodic-rhythmic cell ; he used it as the core of the song’s compositional design. As for the accompanying dance, anthropologists have claimed to trace its angular, earth-oriented components to the Congo, or to the Asante people of what is now Ghana.14 These could be the sources of steps incorporated into “regulation dances” as enslaved African Americans and their descendants transmuted received European forms.15 Steps that Noble Sissle recalled learning around 1905 in Savannah, Georgia, found their way into black vaudeville not long after. One touring troupe, the Whitman Sisters, were dancing to a Charleston rhythm by 1911; according to songwriter Perry Bradford, “They didn’t have the tune yet.”16 Johnson and lyricist Cecil Mack were not the first to link the dance, city, and rhythm in a published song. In 1919, Bradford and Gus Horsley’s “Original Black Bottom Dance” sloughed it off in the interest of promoting a successor: “The Charles-ton [set to ‘the rhythm’] was on the after-beat/But the old Black Bottom makes you move your feet.”17 Passé or not, two short-lived black-cast revues of 1922–1923, Liza and How Come ?, featured numbers called, respectively, “The Charleston Dancey” and “Charleston Cut-Out.”18

On stage, the Charleston became an “exhibition dance” that “included a fast kicking step, both forward and backward, and featured slapping the hands on the body . . . while the dancers were in knock-kneed position.”19 Despite “certain steps or motifs extracted out of Negro tradition,” according to Harold Courlander, this version was “a synthetic creation, a newly devised conglomerate tailored for popular appeal,” belonging to “a category of short-lived, contrived, popular dance forms . . . quite distinct from traditional dance.”20 Leaving aside the professional folklorist’s disdain for hybridity and commerce, something similar can be said of the song, and Johnson’s music more generally. Attracted to his instrument by hearing saloon pianists (from outside) in Newark, Johnson was initially self-taught and was playing ragtime semi-professionally by the early 1910s, but studied harmony and “correct” (that is, European) technique with an Italian teacher, Bruto Giannini, from roughly 1913 to 1917.21 (“I was on Bach, and double thirds need good fingering.”22) For all his vernacular influences, Johnson’s pianism and musical literacy, professionalism, and consciousness of his own artistry make the designation of “folk musician” misleading. So do his activities as a songwriter for Tin Pan Alley publishers and black musical theater: as early as 1914–5, Johnson and lyricist Will Farrell “opened an office . . . to meet artists, write special material and generally contact the entertainment field.”23

Nearly a decade separates the Jungles years from “The Charleston” as we know it.

Whatever variations Johnson played in between, the song was codified when it “hit Broadway” in Runnin’ Wild, and by its publication as sheet music (with the composer credited as “Jimmy Johnson”).24 The show was a loose sequel to 1921’s pioneering Shuffle Along, the decade’s first successful black-authored, -produced, and -cast musical. After falling out with songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, star writer-comedians Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller sought new collaborators. They found Johnson and Mack.25

Precise, energetic dancing had been another attraction of Shuffle Along, and Runnin’ Wild retained the same choreographer, Elida Webb. A female chorus led by singer Elisabeth Welch introduced “The Charleston,” followed a male one of “Dancing Redcaps,” who performed without music beyond their own claps, slaps, and stomps.26 Whether or not this was how “it had been danced in the South for many years,” it was a coup de theatre ; James Weldon Johnson later attested that the number’s “electrical” effect “started the dance on its world-encircling course.”27 Harms, the blue-chip theatrical publisher of Jerome Kern and George Gershwin, plugged several songs from the show. An attractive ballad, “Old-Fashioned Love,” did some business, but “The Charleston” became the breakout hit.28

Like “Carolina Shout,” “The Charleston” was conceived as dance music. But there are important differences. “Carolina Shout” is, generically speaking, a four-strain piano rag (with transitional material, depending on the version), a multi-sectional form with affinities to dance suites and marches. It is first and last an instrumental work, with right-hand figures unsuited to vocal or lyrical treatment. “The Charleston” is unapologetically a popular song, comprising a rarely played verse and a thirty-two–bar chorus in ABA’C form. (Here and below, italicized letters refer to formal sections, not chord names. As of the early 1920s, the ABAC or ABA’C structure of “After the Ball” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was still the most common option in Tin Pan Alley and Broadway hits ; AABA songs, though not unknown, did not dominate until later in the decade.)

Johnson handled this conventional form in an unconventional way. Fifteen of the chorus’s thirty-two measures consist of nothing but the two-note “Charles-ton” rhythmic cell.29 This core syncopation is played (and notated) in both hands—never against the left-hand alternation of bass notes and full chords fundamental to ragtime and stride. For much of the song, melody, rhythm, and accompaniment are emphatically one. This device also distinguishes its rhythmic character from contemporary fox-trots and two-steps, though dance-band arrangements supplied a foursquare foundation.

Johnson turns this minimal, one-measure motif into a melody through the time-honored technique of sequence. In the song’s first three measures the two hits fall successively on F, F#, and G, all chord tones of an underlying Bb-D7-G7 (I-III7-VI7) progression, before allowing a few more notes (and, for the lyricist, syllables) to complete the four-bar phrase. The next two eight-bar sections begin by repeating this gesture (measures 9–12 and 17–20). The second halves of the two A sections (measures 5–8 and 21–24) ring other changes on the rhythmic cell while following the circle of fifths back to the dominant F7. The back half of B (measures 13–16) embodies the song’s main divergence from its central rhythmic idea. Here, as the chorus approaches its midpoint, Johnson suddenly switches to a new, five-note motif, repeated four times ; these figures begin on the “one-and” of each measure, to contrast with the incessant downbeats of the “Charles-ton” cell. This passage also involves the chorus’s least predictable harmonic turn: The first three measures, over Dm-A7-Dm, glance at the harmonic minor (in a key obliquely related to the global tonic) before reverting to the cadentially prescribed dominant at the fourth. After the repeat of A, the C section rounds off the song, beginning with the “Charles-ton” cell on a higher chord tone of the tonic and introducing additional variations in melodic rhythm and harmony, finally working around to a V7-I cadence in the last two bars.

To summarize this brief analysis: Johnson proceeded by raising the quotient of repetition, both at the level of one-measure motifs and in recurring phrases, while including enough variation and contrast to both sustain melodic and harmonic interest and fulfill period formal norms. The craft behind this kind of construction is easy to take for granted ; like much standard repertoire, “The Charleston” is music we think we know but have ceased to hear. Few now recall the lyrics beyond the title, but a word should also be said for their author. Cecil Mack (Richard C. McPherson) directed Gotham-Attucks Music, New York’s first black-owned song publisher, from 1905 to 1911; by the 1920s, he was an established Tin Pan Alley hand.30 Like “Ballin’ the Jack” (Jim Burris/Chris Smith, 1913) or Bradford’s “Original Black Bottom Dance,” his lyrics to “The Charleston” hit the marks then required of a dance-craze song, highlighting its regional—though not specifically racial—origins “in Carolina,” and insisting (contra Bradford) on its up-to-
dateness: “Buck dance/Wing dance/Will be a back number.” (One thing it doesn’t do is explain the actual steps.) The lyrics also reinforce Johnson’s musical structure, by repetition (the title), variation (“Some dance/Some prance”), and—at the B passage described above—a telegraphic quadruple rhyme: “—Ev’ry step you do/—Leads to something new/—Man, I’m tellin’ you/—It’s a lapazoo.”

Still, the tune and rhythm proved more resilient than the words. “The Charleston” never became a popular vocal number ; nor was its chord progression ever widely used as a “blowing chorus”—that is, a pretext for linear improvisation—as widely as those of other 1920s and 1930s standards. Johnson cut the song on piano rolls and disc several times in 1923–1925, mainly in solo renditions that, despite characteristic embellishments and rhythmic drive, are firmly rooted in its published form and melody. More than these recordings, sheet music sales and adoption by white dance bands made “The Charleston” what we would now call a crossover hit. Arthur Gibbs & his Gang’s 1923 Victor recording, with a straight-four rhythm section beneath the syncopated surface, typifies later arrangements. A teachable semblance of the dance became a fad in its own right and, like the song, one of popular culture’s most convenient signifiers for “Roaring Twenties” abandon, alongside bathtub gin, brunette bobs, and fringed flapper dresses.

The “Charles-ton” rhythmic cell, meanwhile, can be heard throughout 1920s (and some later) jazz and pop, wherever the line between them lies. It becomes a background figure, often substituting for straight stop-time, on records like Clarence Williams’s 1925 rendition of his and Jack Palmer’s “Everybody Loves My Baby.” For a latter-day manifestation, consider Martha & The Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” (1963): hocketed between piano, horns, and drum kit, the “one ; two-and” pattern forms an insistent background to the entire arrangement.

Not all such uses can be traced to the influence of James P. Johnson, or of a single song. But “The Charleston,” in particular, was also a harbinger of a compositional style based on repeating and varying short, often syncopated, rhythmic motifs—unified, in the context of popular songwriting, by applying basic tonal resources to sixteen- and thirty-two–bar sectional forms. Notably, the song slightly precedes 1924’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (from Lady, Be Good !, the Gershwins’ first full Broadway score) and “Tea For Two” (Vincent Youmans/Irving Caesar), ABAC songs with many of the characteristics described. These songs—unlike “I’d Rather Charleston,” also from Lady, Be Good !—are not pastiches, and charges of cultural theft may oversimplify the musical exchanges between black and white professionals active in the same commercial milieu.31 But given the critical attention and cultural capital accorded to white songwriters of the Gershwins’ generation, it is worth recognizing that black jazz musicians like Johnson were the style’s progenitors. Though its form and contemporary associations are quite different from those of “Carolina Shout,” we should hear “The Charleston” as an artifact not only of the “Jazz Age,” but jazz history.

Scott E. Brown’s James P. Johnson : A Case of Mistaken Identity (Metuchen, NJ and London : Scarecrow Press/Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1986), is the only book-length work on Johnson to date. Tom Davin’s series of “Conversations with James P. Johnson,” published posthumously in The Jazz Review (1959–1960) and cited by month below, are invaluable. For a pianist’s perspective, see Ethan Iverson’s blog entry, “In Search of James P. Johnson,” at dothemath.com.

The most extensive reissue of Johnson’s recordings is the six-CD Classic James P. Johnson Sessions 1921–1943 (Mosaic, 2016). Also recommended : The Original James P. Johnson (1942–1945) (Smithsonian Folkways, 1996), which collects later recordings of mostly lesser-known material. Recordings of Johnson’s early piano rolls appear on Parlor Piano Solos from Rare Piano Rolls (Biograph, 1997) and Runnin’ Wild (1921–1926) (Tradition, 1997).

1 Willie “The Lion” Smith with George Hoefer, Music on My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 66–67.

2 On some definitions, the Gullah-Geechee Corridor stretches roughly from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, extending “little more than 50 miles inland at any point.” Emory Shaw Campbell, “Foreword,” in Wilbur Cross, Gullah Culture in America (Westport, CT: Prager, 2008), vii.

3 Lydia Parish, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands [1942] (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1992).

4 Edward Berlin, Research and Reflections on Ragtime (Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1987), 58–60.

5 Quoted in Jerome Harris, “Considering Jaki Byard,” Sound American 22, 10.

6 Brown, 281–98.

7 Johnson recorded “Carolina Shout” at intervals thoughout his career, with significant variations. A 1921 recording for Okeh is canonical, but earlier piano rolls are also significant; famously, both Duke Ellington and Fats Waller learned the piece by slowing down the roll.

8 While “shout,” as in “ring shout,” is often reserved for African-American religious expression, Brown (21) points out that Johnson applies it to secular, social music “based on short, repeated [verabal] refrains . . . and melodic statements.” See also John P. Szwed and Morton Marks, “The Afro-American Transformation of European Set Dances and Dance Suites,” Dance Research Journal 20:1 (Summer 1988), 29–36; 33. 

9 Davin (June 1959), 15.

10 Davin (July 1959), 11.

11 Ibid.

12 Davin (July 1959), 12–13. Condensed from original.

13 The “Charles-ton” pattern also corresponds to the first two accents of the 3+3+2 tresillo rhythm, also called tanaga or habanera, basic to Cuban and other Latin American music; the similarity suggests common Afro-diasporic origins.

14 Joseph Holloway, “What African Has Given America: African Continuities in the North American Diaspora,” in Africanisms in American Culture, 2nd ed., ed. Joseph E. Holloway (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 2005), 51–52; Barbara Glass, African American Dance: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2007), 184.

15 Szwed and Marks. 

16 Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance [1968] (New York: Da Capo, 1994), 87.

17 Gus Horsley and Perry Bradford, “Original Black Bottom Dance” (New York: Perry Bradford Music Company, 1919). The lyrics, with the syncopated accent on “Charleston,” are heard on recordings by Bradford (with the Georgia Strutters, 1926) and Sadie Jackson (1927); Wallace’s pianist is James P. Johnson !

18 Allen Woll, Black Musical Theater: Coontown to Dreamgirls (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 90. Unfortunately, neither number was published or recorded.

19 James Haskins, Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People (New York:
HarperCollins, 1990), 43; see also Holloway, 52.

20 Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music U.S.A. (Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, 1963), 189–90.

21 Brown, 70.

22 Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime, 4th ed., (New York: Oak Publications, 1971), 201.

23 Davin (September 1959), 26.

24 Cecil Mack and Jimmy Johnson, “The Charleston” (New York: Harms, 1923). A facsimile of one early (but undated) edition can be downloaded at https://digitalcommons.library

25 Woll, 84–85.

26 Glass, 184.

27 Stearns and Stearns, 145; James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), 190.

28 Harms was a reputable publisher, and Johnson and Mack did earn royalties. Johnson was comparatively fortunate in his dealings with the mainstream (read white-controlled) music industry. On the strength of “The Charleston” and a later pop hit, “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” (1926, Henry Creamer), he became one of the few black musicians admitted to ASCAP before the 1940s; in later years, royalties and an ASCAP annuity afforded him a financial stability rare among early jazz musicians.

29 Understood, at least, as a vocal melody. In his own performances, Johnson heavily accents and slightly anticipates the hit on “two-and,” followed by a quick chromatic gesture below and back up to the main pitch on the after-“after-beat.” The published piano part indicates the accent, but not the anticipation, and notates the virtual “bends” as grace notes. 

30 Wayne D. Shirley, “A List of Publications of the Gotham-Attucks Company at the Library of Congress,” The Black Perspective in Music 15:1 (Spring 1987), 79–112; David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880–1930 (New York: Schirmer, 1998), 125–32. 

31 Gershwin and Johnson were well acquainted; they may have first met in 1920, when both were cutting piano rolls for Aeolian. Davin (September 1959), 26.

James P. Johnson: From "Carolina Shout" To "The Charleston"