There’s a kind of beat called a “shuffle.” You’ve heard it thousands of times, maybe without knowing it. It’s an amazing beat when it’s played well, a unique combination of relaxed and urgent. Wikepedia has a long explanation which will be hard to make sense of. I think of a shuffle as triplets—1,2,3—played against four 1,2,3,4. So while a steady 1,2,3,4 pulse is going on, there’s a triplet pulse stretched against it.
This website offers a really interesting way to understand it. It’s built around a piece of software called “swing thing.” It takes pop songs and “time stretches” them into a swing feel. Try listening to the version of Madonna’s Like a Virgin or the Police tune Every Breath you Take. Or if you really want a laugh, try Sweet Child of Mine.
If you’ve done any swing dancing, you’ll notice right away that you could swing dance to the “Swing thing” version of the tunes, but not to the original. That because mostly what it’s doing is turning them into a bad shuffle. The beat has a lopey feeling: ba bum ba BUM ba bum ba BUM. It’s hard to describe, but easy to hear. That’s the shuffle beat, and a song based on that beat will often be titled the “X shuffle” or musicians will just describe it: “it’s a Bb shuffle.”
The shuffle is the root beat of a lot of 50s rock and roll (think Chuck Berry) and R+B, and that’s because swing dancing was popular. It’s common in gospel music—here’s a completely smoking shuffle played by the Dixie Hummingbirds, Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor. As far as I know, the shuffle beat originated with swing dancing. Here’s a classic swing shuffle, Chatanooga Choo Choo.
It’s one of the thousands of American songs that reference trains. It has train-whistle horns, and imitation chuffing sounds, and the lyrics compare the train to a beat. The sound of trains—the whistle, and the regular, accented chuff of a steam train—haunts American popular music. Listen to this example of a steam locomotive to get the rhythm.
Although I can’t prove it, it’s tempting to relate the origins of the shuffle to the railroad. In the early twentieth century, musicians traveled overwhelmingly by rail, and of course trains were always passing by everywhere. In rural American they stood for mobility and possibility. In urban American they stood for glamor.
There’s a drumbeat known as the “train beat’ or the “train shuffle.” If you look at this example you can hear the triplet against four shuffle pattern. It’s in a thousand country and rock tunes. And it’s equally foundational to R+B and jazz. Here’s Meade Lux Lewis’ wonderful Honky Tonk Train Blues, fiendishly difficult, complete with a triplet feel and off-time parts aimed to imitate the sounds of a train. Here’s the country/bluegrass classic Orange Blossom Special, a very fast shuffle played by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. Here’s Roy Acuff playing Freight Train Blues, complete with yodel. It’s all over the blues too–here’s Magic Sam’s Lookin’ Good, and the really ferocious live version here, starting at about 3:26. Hear it and die, guitar players. And here’s a psychotic rockabilly train shuffle, later made famous in a much inferior not-really-a-shuffle Aerosmith version, Train Kept a Rollin. There’s REM’s Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars), a rock shuffle with a train theme.
Did the shuffle beat originate in the sound of steam trains? Maybe, a steam train has a combination of regular time and off accents that translates right into the shuffle beat. And you can hear the train sound in all the tunes I listed above. Here’s a video clip of the Ellington band playing Take the A Train on a train. But while the song is a train shuffle the actual A train was an electric subway. And there were steam trains long before there was a shuffle beat. And of course there are thousands of shuffles that don’t reference trains. So while I suspect there’s a historical link between the shuffle and the steam locomotive, I can’t prove it.
The shuffle is one of my favorite beats, but it’s hard to find a drummer who can play a shuffle right. Drummers who start out playing rock generally can’t get the feel; they rock instead of roll, and instead of moving down the track, the beat plods and spins its wheels. Straight rock, rock after the 60s, kind of killed the shuffle and killed the swing feel.
There are great modern shufflers. In DC the king of the swing shuffle beat has to be Big Joe Maher. Chris Layton, who played with Stevie Ray Vaughn was a killer blues rock shuffler. There’s the famous “half time shuffle,” also known as the “Purdie Shuffle” You’ll love watching Bernard Purdie explain the Purdie Shuffle. Watch parts 1 and 2. You’ll laugh. But notice the triplets.
The half time shuffle has some rock variants: the Led Zeppelin song Fool in the Rain, almost the same beat, and the famous Rosanna shuffle. Listening to Purdie and then to these two makes clear the difference between a rock feel and a soul /R+B feel.
It makes sense that the age of the shuffle should be the golden age of steam, and that as that sound, the sound of steam engines, vanished from the American landscape, so did the drum beat it inspired.
Am I right about this? Is it plausible? Meanwhile, drummers, give your bassist a break. Go listen to some steam trains.