San Francisco’s Pier 39 on what looks like a quiet day. That’s the Honky Tonk Woman playing between the two bits of greenery foreground left.

Back in San Francisco last week for the first time in 20 years, we found ourselves, as you invariably do in San Francisco, amongst the throng at Pier 39.

After checking that the city’s famous sea lions still hang out at K-dock, I heard the most unexpected sound – full tilt piano boogie woogie emanating from the crowd. We followed our ears and found a lady with a winning smile tickling the ivories at a ferocious rate.

She was Caroline Dahl, a San Franciscan pianist of note, who – dare I say – ‘busks’ on Pier 39 most Saturdays or Sundays. Drop a couple of bucks in Caroline’s silver bucket and you’ll be more than getting your money’s worth. Check below and see what I mean.

Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Caroline, according to America’s influential Keyboard Magazine, “displays an impressive command of boogie woogie, blues, ragtime, country swing and rock & roll piano styles.”

Add honky tonk and Cajun to that, and you get the gist of Caroline’s keyboard range. The lady can switch genres at the drop of a hat, as people used to say.

And, as the alternative SF Weekly newspaper much more recently exclaimed, “If genre purists have a distaste for Dahl’s fusions, so much the better. After all, boogie woogie has been about causing trouble since the (music’s) beginning.”

Now, I’ve always believed boogie woogie, honk tonky, barrelhouse etc. started ‘causing trouble’ in the lumber and railway camps of East Texas from the 1870s onwards.


Caroline Dahl. Courtesy Blue Bear Teachers.

But here’s a bit of alternative history for you. According to the Los Angeles Times of 28 July, 1928, the term honky tonk (as in bar) actually originated in nineteenth century San Francisco. Under the headline “Honky Tonk Origin Told”, the LA Times, eighty-eight years ago, wrote:

Honky Tonk Origin Told

“Do you know what a honky tonk is? Seafaring men of a few years ago knew very well, as the honky-tonks of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast constituted perhaps the most vivid spots in their generally uneventful lives.”

Well, as I said, that’s exactly where I was the other Saturday – San Francisco’s old Barbary Coast – and, let me tell you, boogie, honky tonk – call it what you will – is still alive and well, where it possibly started, in the capable hands of Ms. Caroline Dahl.

Patrons of Kentucky’s 1970s music scene might remember Caroline playing in the now legendary Metropolitan Blues All Stars. Since then she’s performed at jazz and blues festivals all over the world and played with such blues luminaries as John Lee Hooker.

You can currently find Caroline Dahl performing in the Bay area with roots band Tom Rigney & Flambeau or solo down at Pier 39 or at Mama’s Royal Café in Mill Valley. Even better, should you require being taught by the talented Ms. Dahl, she’s on the books of San Francisco’s leading blues, rock and pop music school, Blue Bear Teachers.