Language of the Blues: BARRELHOUSE

2019 WC Handy 728×90

Another installment in our new weekly series entitled, The Language of the Blues, where author and rocker Debra Devi focuses on the meaning and significance of a unique word used in blues song. Come back every Wednesday for the latest!


A bar where whiskey is served straight from the barrel is called a barrelhouse. Add a piano and you’ve got yourself a party.

The barrelhouses of the rural South were rough wooden shacks where African American laborers gathered to drink and dance at the edge of small towns and levee camps. The up-tempo piano blues that developed in these establishments came to be called barrelhouse, as well, as in “I want to hear some barrelhouse tonight.”

Barrelhouse piano playing was basically the blues sped up for dancing. It substituted a different percussive instrument–the piano–for the drums that had been outlawed during slavery. Like the African drummer who drives the dancers moving in front of him and is in turn inspired by them to play harder and faster, the barrelhouse piano got the
bar swinging.

As Texas barrelhouse piano player Robert Shaw explained: “When you listen to what I’m playing, you got to see in your mind all them gals out there swinging their butts and getting the mens excited. Otherwise you ain’t got this music rightly understood. I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything. I told them when to shake it and when to hold it back. That’s what this music is for.”

This raw, high-spirited piano playing eventually morphed into boogie-woogie–a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music.

Barrelhouse could be played on guitar, too, as Memphis Minnie proves in “Drunken Barrel House Blues.”

“Barrel House Blues”- Lovie Austin, performed by Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett Rainey)
“Change My Luck Blues”- Blind Lemon Jefferson (Lemon Jefferson)
“I Feel So Good”- Big Bill Broonzy (Willie Lee Conley Broonzy)
“Traveling Riverside Blues”- Robert Johnson
“Drunken Barrel House Blues” – Memphis Minnie

Pick up a copy of The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu at Amazon

Robert Shaw – The Ma Grinder

Henry Townsend – Barrelhouse Blues 1976

Memphis Minnie – Drunken Barrel House Blues