Chicka (stomp) Chicka Ding! The musical washboard and stomp box

A curious bright-eyed youngster approached me on stage as I was packing up gear after a bar gig a few weeks back. "I don't mean to bother you but my friends and I are wondering what that board instrument you were playing is called." Enthusiastically, I picked up my little musical washboard and gave her an explanation of the handcrafted percussion instrument that my husband and I cobbled together with antique tins and old bells. When we play overseas people will refer to it as a "scratchboard" sometimes or simply "the bell thing". A relative of the washtub bass the washboard as a percussion instrument has deep American roots. There are plenty of different ways to play it, but the rhythmic techniques I use come from the washboard players of the pre-war Piedmont and Delta blues era. Since our new album "2" is heavily focused on exploring these styles of music through Jeff's swampy 1936 National Duolian resonator guitar, I decided to shed some light on what tends to be an overshadowed instrument that so many people are familiar with.     


History claims that the wooden plated washboard is considered to be among one of the great American inventions of the 1830s. Having a similar musical cultural history as the Peruvian cajon (the box drum), slaves would use the dual device as a percussive drum when musical instruments were banned from being played to accompany singing, dancing, and chanting. In later years this form of musical expression evolved into what we consider traditional blues and early jazz music. The washboard is primarily played by using a series of tapping and scraping motions, generally with thimbles or spoons, on the metal board, wooden frame, and its attached accessories which can range anywhere from a cowbell to a cymbal. 


I've bent my ears to many washboard players over the years and one of my biggest influences and favorite washboard players in American Piedmont blues history is Bull City Red (born George Washington in 1917) who accompanied artists such as resophonic guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and ragtime guitarist and singer Blind Blake. The use of the washboard in these early recordings helped pave the way into the early Piedmont blues era of music. Bull City Red's playing is steady like a train in motion and then he'll pull out a rhythmic break that will trick your ears. The tones he captivates on the washboard are crisp, clean, and a perfect polyrhythmic echo to the muddy nature of his counterpart guitar. My washboard contains antique tins, a brass bike bell, and a Tibetan meditation bell to round out the tone.


To add to the washboard's sound I borrowed a technique from the blues players of the past and added a shotgun shell box as a stomp box. So the story goes back in the day blues players would often play in tobacco houses and coal mining towns. In these communities dynamite was a common commodity and the discarded wooden boxes for dynamite were often easy to come by. The blues players learned that the box made a great hollow thumping sound when stomped on and could hold up to the wear and tear of many a night's camaraderie. Of course the story continues that the dynamite boxes sometimes contained unstable residues and would sometimes ignite if stomped too hard! The box I choose to use is free of this problem but contains the same sound the dynamite boxes produced. I choose to play mine standing with a tambourine inside and will often stick a microphone in it to allow it to be amplified.


From Creole zydeco to Appalachian folk, the washboard has played an important role in American jug band music. It packs a lot of punch for its size and boosts the drive and texture of a song. I'm happy to see that people are still taking an interest in washboard playing and I like encouraging those who wish to learn how to play. "All it takes is a trip to your local antique store, a bit of elbow grease, and access to some old blues recordings" is what I say. Alongside a creative stomp box you can get some pretty complex rhythms and sounds out of a small portable package. 

~R

The Story So Far: In which Jeff recounts the past 5 or so years

It was Halloween 2012 at the intersection of Lake St and Lyndale Ave in Uptown Minneapolis. It's different now but back then it was bathed in purple neon. That evening I had finally gotten off of work, and gone the few blocks down to see some local live music again for the first time in a while. I'd had a busy schedule with work and playing my own music but I had been hearing a lot of buzz from the people around me which is what brought me to this particular place that particular evening. This was the first evening I would meet Rocky Steen, the songwriter that I had been told about all summer long, the person that my colleagues told me I would "just love" and the person who showed up just 3 minutes before showtime with a guitar on her back and no time to meet me when her friends shuffled her over to my table. It was in that awkward moment we met. She was still radiating the already cold Minnesota air into the joint while I fumbled through some stock "nice to meet you" and "I've heard a lot about you" type phrases. I was never good at those arranged meeting type scenarios and this was no exception. Regardless, we obviously did end up becoming friends.

Sometimes I wonder if it was that Mayan calendar doomsday 2012 "Hey! we might all die at the end of year!" thought that was sarcastically on our minds that winter or if it was really just that pure of a connection but Roc and I quickly started to work together and collaborate. By April we were married in a courthouse marriage by a dapper judge who was a huge fan of blues music. It was in his chambers surrounded by his framed photographs of Taj Mahal, Mississippi John Hurt, Bo Diddly, and other blues men, that we were wed. We moved to Chicago by the Fall and started playing out at markets and barrooms as quickly as we came. The next few months are still a blur in my memory. We were running a small business cleaning homes and condos in the Chicago area, playing when we had time off, and still had the time to acquire a puppy and take in a stray dog that we named Penny and Bella respectively.  By the time our first summer had taken hold in The Windy City we found ourselves busier than we had ever been before with our work, and playing a few times a month downtown and at a few farmer's markets in the city. It wasn't the performing we missed, it was the time to write that we were starting to want. So that fall, a year after arriving in Chicago, we packed up the carefully decorated apartment with all the pets and brought it down to Arkansas.

 

We found a cabin home that was secluded enough to keep us in isolation but just near enough to town if we needed anything. Plus, it had that barn we use in some of our promo shots in the backyard, how can you pass that up? (We would later learn that the home used to be owned by the illustrator of Ranger Rick magazine and the barn housed his animals) That first winter there was amazing. We had to learn how to heat a house with a wood stove for the first time, how to keep a well properly maintained, how to live without the internet and most of all we made friends with the animals that would frequent the woodland home. Our favorite of these was the little brown dog that came the day after we arrived. His name was Jr. Brown and he was our first friend in the Ozarks. We later learned he lived about a mile or so down the dirt road from us but was partially raised by his feral dog father in the Ozark woods. He would just run around doing whatever he pleased and would often end up at our place. We took him on as a sort of spirit guardian and he would stop by almost daily to play with our dogs. I remember one morning as winter was settling in I walked to the back porch just as the sun was coming over the hillside. In the distance I saw a shadow bolting through the trees and a tiny speck of brown formed on the horizon at the treeline. Jr Brown came running at a full sprint right for the backdoor, and as he got close I slid the door open. He ran right to the couch, leaped onto it and quickly feel fast asleep. Such was our winter. We would spend the days chopping logs, hiking the hills, running around with the dogs and cats of the woods and the evening tending the fire and listening to records or singing songs until we decided we'd burned enough wood for one evening. Often nights it would be Roc and I, wood stove a glow, lights off, nothing but the glow of the moon, and all our dogs listening to the fire like a radio while the coyotes howled in the hollow. It was one of those afternoons that I set my camera on a tripod to take some photographs. I had it on a timer and Roc and I were hanging out under the giant white oak tree in our back yard. We took 2 pictures that day and the first one became the album cover to "Songbirds and Fog"

 

Jr Brown started to stop by for 2 days a time, sometimes even 3. He'd bring other dogs too and oftentimes they would wander off after a few hours. We noticed him slowing down a bit too, we learned from his owners that he was 9 or so years old and we suspected he might have been getting too old to make the trip back and forth in the winter time. He became a de facto member of the household, teaching us things like where the paths were the best in the back woods to hike to the next road, or even where the gaps in the fences were from the aforementioned illustrator's livestock fence. He knew every fox hole for miles, and every small pool of water on that hill. Sometimes he arrived with a swollen eye, a limp, or a small cut but he never stopped visiting; it was an amazing life for a dog and I certainly envied it in some ways. As spring began to bloom we found ourselves in a new world. Where there was nothing but brown, yellow, and black there was suddenly pink, orange, purple, and green. We were all feeling the effects of spring as both Roc and I would venture the woods with all our animal companions smelling all the flowers and listening to the songbirds whistle. Roc and I started our garden that year, and we would spend mornings digging rows, cleaning weeds, and prepping the compost pit. We'd brew giant pitchers of cold press coffee and iced teas and work until the sun went down. The dogs would hang out with us in the mornings sometimes digging holes to try and help or they would run off into the woods together only to be seen again at dusk. One day they all ran off into the woods together and didn't make it back until twilight. One by one the dogs ran out of the woods right in front of us as we strolled the treeline looking for them. One by one they emerged, tails between their legs, shaking and yet unharmed all frightened by some unknown terror. One by one they came up to us and nestled onto our legs. One by one, until Roc and I realized everyone had come home except for Jr Brown. We never saw him again. We still miss that dog. 

With our little guardian gone Roc and I started to set our sights on the songs we had written that winter. We started to demo a few of them in the house during the evenings which slowly turned into all night recording sessions. As we did so, we started realizing we liked the sound of these recordings. They were written in such a trance like state of isolation, it felt strange to bring them to a studio. We left them that way, home spun, or as they say in the industry "raw".  By the time we finished recording we had over 20 songs finished and had to start the process of selecting which ones fit best together and in what order, We had what we thought were high hopes for these songs. We wanted to get them out onto a record, print some CDs, maybe get a music video made, and perhaps get enough exposure with them to get us back out into the world and into society by the summer. We often talked about how nice it would be to maybe see the ocean again, or maybe even get some songs on the radio. It was all just woodland dreams but it was a fun recording process. If you listen to the record you'll occasionally hear a grasshopper in the distance, a bird on the tree outside, or a storm roll in. We recorded most of the album with the windows open which was a choice mostly made by the lack of air conditioning in the studio room and the fact hat it had huge windows. Boy it got hot in there! (the room we recorded the songs in was originally an illustration studio so the windows were for observing the animals!)

 

The album was formulated, and we decided to call it "Songbirds and Fog". We didn't expect much from it though we had our fingers crossed. We acquired "The Pelican" our trusty Winnebago around then. It's a class C RV with a few issues that became the tinkering pleasure of a few of my newly acquired rural living skills. Solar panels, coffee roasters, espresso machines, water heaters, all got caught in my installation fantasies as we sought to build the perfect rig for 2. We downsized our car to a 2 door Jeep and used the trade value of the downsize to put a few mods on it so it could be flat towed behind the RV. We weren't really planning on touring much, but we wanted to take what we learned from Jr Brown and our time in the woods. We wanted to run around free as a woodland critter wherever we pleased so we decided to take the steps to make that happen. We were able to book a tour to California and back with our yet to be released album and with that all was as we wished. It was on the road that May that our album received radio play and charted. Our video premiered and won several film festival accolades thanks to its talented director. Of course as time passed we were able to book more things on the road, explore more places and now, we're "here". We've been to both coasts several times, many new towns and cities, been to Ireland, met some amazing musicians from all over the world, and of course we're still doing as much of it as possible with our animal friends.

 

Things are not always so lovely though, we almost died once in Colorado when a semi-truck hub cap sailed at our rig at over 70mph. Due to quick maneuvering it missed us by inches, sparing us from becoming a casualty of the road. OK, maybe we wouldn't have died but it still scares me to think about sometimes. We once had to dodge a wildfire in Nevada too. It was on the sides of the interstate as we sped past. Fire crews were hosing it down and waving us through and we ended up driving 14 miles on a dirt road, RV and Jeep together with a string of cars following behind. Following a map we found a series of rural routes that connected us to a highway on the far side of the fire. As night loomed the desert glowed with wildfire closing in. Obviously it never did reach us but it was certainly not a heartwarming experience. So that's the story so far, we'll try to keep the brushes with death to a minimum but what's life without taking some chances? About a month or so after Jr Brown disappeared his owners stopped by to ask if we'd seen him. It broke my heart as I told them I hadn't seen him in a month. we all stood there in silence as we all took in the information. His doggie mama broke the silence and said "Well, it wasn't the safest life, but it was his life and he loved it. He was always so happy" That little dog taught us a lot. We still miss that dog. 

Why the resonator?

There's nothing like the tone of a resophonic guitar. I firmly believe that statement to be true. They drive the sound of delta blues, commit the twang into bluegrass, give Hawaiian music it's distinct sway and hypnotic sound, and of course, they're cool to look at.  They aren't just growling beasts of volume as many believe them to be. I find they are some of the sweetest and nuanced acoustic instruments out there. I have been lucky to own 4 resonator instruments in my short lifetime and my journey to acquiring them has brought me my current point of fascination with them.

The very first resophonic guitar I got was a $300 Craigslist purchase of a Johnson brand biscuit resonator. It came with two glass bottleneck slides and a cheap cardboard case that could barely contain the guitar's weight. I strung it up once I got it home and just never found my groove with it, I tried standard tuning, open D, open G, and other variations but just never liked it's sound. I set it aside and only pulled it out when it's tone escaped my memory and I thought that maybe I was missing something and it actually sounded good. (it didn't) I learned later what I was really looking for was a quality biscuit cone, but more on that later. All in all it seeded my disdain for cheaply made resonator guitars, no "bargain brand" resonator ever sounds good to me, they just sound like a poorly manufactured knockoff of the real thing.

Once I had moved to Chicago I started getting more into bluegrass music and thought I might like the Dobro. The Dobro is of course the common name to the spider bridged squareneck resonator. See, back in the day there were two competing companies, the National Guitar Company, and the Dobro Company. Though in the beginning they were just the National Company. National's main inventor and designer, John Dopyera left National to form his own company where he designed the spider bridge with his brother. They called the company "Dobro" after their name: Dopyera Brothers. Eventually the two feuding companies merged together to better navigate the new electric guitar industry and eventually shut down after WWII. (Gibson now owns the Dobro trademark) As for my square neck, it was a Regal, (a model up from the RD-40) and it was pretty good for what it was. I learned a lot about bluegrass music, and blues, and loved the warm tone it gave off. I even played it on a few tracks on "Songbirds and Fog". I don't use it much anymore but still love to play it when I get the chance. 

Of course this is all just fodder when it comes to my favorite instrument. There's an old adage in guitar playing: "when I die, don't let my wife sell my guitars for what I told her I paid for it". See, I had been listening to a lot of delta blues, and was realizing that the cheap Johnson guitar I was using was just poorly made for the tone I was seeking. I needed a good resonator if I wanted to play one well. I searched for many months to find a guitar I wanted, I even ordered one and sent it back; I was so picky in what I wanted but I remained strong in my faith that I would find my guitar. It was on one day we were on tour in Colorado that Rocky and I stopped into a guitar shop and asked if they had any resophonics. The guy laughed a bit and said "yeah like 200 of them". I thought he was joking but it turned out he wasn't. A collector had passed away in town and his wife was left with his massive collection of Nationals. I played several of them that day and had a great time. I couldn't get over one of them though and just had to have it, it was a 1936 National Duolian and it has since become my primary instrument. I bought it for the price the collector's wife said it was worth, and learned a lesson that day: always tell your partner what you paid or they might rip themselves off. I did feel a touch bad but I felt it needed to be played not put in storage as a collector's item. I would later learn that it's the same make, model, and year as Blind Boy Fuller's guitar. (I've done a lot of research to see if it might be his but that's a conversation for another time.) It's one of the finest instruments I've ever played. The biscuit cone resonator was $32.50 when they were first issued and became a favorite of blues musicians for their affordability, volume, and durability. (they said they were bullet-proof!) Famously played by Son House, Booker White, and of course Blind Boy Fuller they provide a sound that I just can't turn away from. Also the fact that this guitar was built before planned obsolescence was common place means it will last for many more decades.

My last acquisition was my National Tricone. It has 3 small resonator cones that connect to a T-shaped bridge and give off a more sweet and mellow tone. It's a really lovely guitar and was expertly made. I stopped into the National factory in San Luis Obispo and got to see the machinery and factory where it was made, These guys really make the best reproduction of the original instruments. I got the tricone mostly as a backup in case my duolian ever acts up, and I use them interchangeably depending on my mood now. I use it on a few YouTube videos on our channel.

So what's the deal? what makes them so special? I think it's their ability to respond to everything the player does. I love my flattop guitar but if I strum hard on it it gets to a peak volume that can't be surpassed. If I do the same to my duolian it gets as loud as I can hit it and can get as quiet and mellow as I want to play it too. Some folks just get them because they're loud, which I can also understand. I love them because they have so much more to offer than a traditional guitar.  They're great for slide of course, and I like to play slide on mine as much as one could expect. The irony is not lost on me however how these guitars of the working class musician are now collector's items, I think every roots and blues guitarist should try one out at some point. They contain a simple type of industrial magic that captures the 20's and 30's of America so well. Part mechanical, part artistic, and completely untraveled land at the time of their release, this class of guitar will always hold a special place in my ear and my heart. 

Twang on~🎶

-J

I'll take a one way ticket out of this town. (Trains and how they shaped American music)

We can all agree and disagree on most everything. But I have a hunch that most of us have at least thought about what it would be like to buy a one way ticket to a destination never to return again. Some of us have manifested that exact thought into reality and we find ourselves living many miles away from the places we once called home. Luckily, or maybe not so luckily, we have social media to keep up with old friends and family from the past. It's becoming increasingly more difficult to permanently "loose touch" with the people you don't have an interest in out of the sake of being polite. But imagine yourself during a time before computers and cell phones; before airplanes and greyhounds were a common mode of mass transportation for the middle class and before car ownership was only possible for a select few types of people. If you needed to get somewhere far away in a hurry, you'd most likely board a train. Jeff and I have been listening to a lot of old records over the years (mostly old blues, Carter Family, various folk Anthologies, and Bob Dylan). We've observed the different ways these roots and folk musicians sing about trains and how important the train is to the origins of American folk music. We've listened to these records countless times and have had many discussions about how music has traveled and transformed since the dawn of American train culture. Of course these train songs originated with the makers of the train tracks themselves (songs known as chain gang songs invented by slaves and later prisoners who pounded their picks into the ground, chanted, and sang with the voices and rhythms passed down to them from their ancestors). 

It's almost as if you can feel the construction of the train tracks in the music of their children and grandchildren recorded later on. Today we commonly refer to these musicians as "the old blues men and women" such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Elizabeth Cotten, and Bessie Smith who all sing about riding trains, leaving, or returning home.

Jeff and I talk about what it must've been like to be African American upon the end of the Civil War and how the train must've been quite the symbol of freedom to these newly freed people. Many of these people who were once enslaved were able to flee to other destinations by train hoping that a better life was waiting at the track's end; and they took their voices with them and passed their train music down to their kin. We are incredibly lucky that their children and grandchildren preserved and recorded these original train songs while inventing a whole new style of music. Since then you have other genres of music, such as bluegrass, old time, folk, and country music that talk about trains but the origin of American train music in the United States was invented by the people who built the tracks and it traveled with their children from coast to coast, north to south, which is why we've been able to learn so many songs even in the most remote locations of the country.

Growing up out on the western prairie and the Great Plains was as desolate as you can imagine it to be. The first time I saw Urban style graffiti was when I'd see it painted on the sides of trains that passed through my childhood stomping grounds. I thought it was beautiful and wondered what it would be like to hop on a train and end up in a big city just to observe it all. I would think about how much more interesting life, art, and music must be in a big city. But what I didn't know is that the music I had learned as a child in small-town America was also being taught in cities. It wasn't until I moved to Minneapolis and met my husband, who spent the majority of his life in the Twin Cities, that I learned we had grown up learning the same songs. This is why we love roots music. It's amazing when you can sit down with a complete stranger and sing and play the same songs. The train made it possible for this music to travel up, down, and all across the country. I can only imagine that many songs written about trains were written on trains (I wish that I could write and drive at the same time because cross-country imagery and travel sure does stir up the songwriting senses.) Jeff and I are committed to a life of music and the road and we couldn't be more at peace to be out driving on the highways next to the train tracks that made it possible for music to travel back in the old days. 

-R

How I learned to love the banjo

Just yesterday afternoon I was struggling with a metal ring. It was a large metal ring the exact diameter of my banjo. This was intentionally done back in the 1890's or so when the ring was made. It was one of the many, many parts that would eventually come together in the course of the day to make a complete playable banjo. After much swearing, and self bargaining I finally got it slipped over my goat skin drum head and slipped around the tone ring. Then I had to meticulously attach all the little hooks and nuts on the side to bring the tension to that perfect spot. Once I finally did that, I had to set the tailpiece, then find the perfect spot for the bridge in accordance with the fret board. Finally I set new my nylon strings on this antique beauty and strummed.

It was horribly out of tune.

The banjo is a horrendously unforgiving instrument. I have owned 3 in my lifetime and all of them have been complete with their quirks and trials. They often can be difficult to tune, sometimes the bridge collapses and needs to be reset. (Often right before a gig too!) and some of them are very very heavy. This was particularly true with my first banjo. It was a Jida brand banjo I got at a music shop. I knew nothing about banjos other than "I wanted to learn it" and this made in Korea banjo seemed fitting for me. I remember bringing it home, tuning it and sitting alone on the 3 season porch on a rainy spring Minnesota night plucking it horribly in the solitude of an empty house. (perhaps my banjo playing had driven all my housemates away)

I would learn a lot on that banjo, and eventually take it with me to a dozen or so states and into Canada. I never recorded with it, though a friend of mine did on our trek through Nashville. The five-string banjo has 2 distinct styles that a player will generally choose from. There's the "Scruggs style" or "3 finger" which is the bluegrass oriented picking style I was most familiar with. (Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, etc.) Then there's "clawhammer" style which is the style I mostly stick to these days. (Buell Kazee, Bruce Molsky, etc) This is the more "old-time" style often played on old records and usually associated with mountain music.  I tried both out quite a bit but never really got the hang of the 3 finger style. I was never motivated enough to actually practice the style, often finding it tedious and boring to practice after a few minutes. 

The clawhammer style was the most suited for me, it tends to accompany a solo singer better and have a great rhythmic quality to it that I find mesmerizing. Once I figured this out I traded my Jida bluegrass banjo for a fiddle that I never learned to play and got myself an open back banjo. The banjo I got was  Gibson RB-175LN and is my current primary banjo. It was built in 1964 and carries a very unique part of the folk legacy with it.

The Gibson banjo I have is a longneck banjo that was popularized by Pete Seeger. Seeger who liked to do sing a-longs with his crowds and found the key of E suited his voice best. Banjo players can likely attest the key of E can often be tricky on banjo since it's tuned to open G. His solution? Add 3 more frets to the banjo allowing it to go lower. The result is a longer banjo neck and an instrument that's a touch longer than your average bass guitar.  These banjos were popular in the 60's often seen in Seeger's hands as well as the Kingston trio. (George Grove fancied the key of F on his). It's rich deep tone paved the way to allow the banjo into more ears and spaces and brought it down from the mountain and into the general public. 

My final banjo, and my current project is my Buckbee banjo. It's an antique banjo built around the 1890's and was the source of my frustration just yesterday afternoon. I finally fixed it up yesterday and it's playing better than ever. It was one of the first mass produced banjos and therefore isn't particularly valuable but it sure is fun to play an instrument that old. Banjos have a rich and often dark history tied to American history. It's one of the only truly American instruments after all. It evolved from African gourd instruments brought during the slave trade, its sound maturing through minstrel shows, and finally resting on the tops of hills and mountains in the countryside where their design and sound became more refined. This is why I love them. They're not easy to work with, and sometimes they aren't exactly pretty. They get made fun of a lot, and still carry a stigma about them as a low-brow instrument, but they are what they are: simple, built to work, and played to pass the time. They're as simple as you want them to be and complex as your imagination will allow. They're highly evolved and just plain fun to play. It's complex issues are of no mind to me, I will always forgive their shortcomings of being hard to tune some days, and being a bit too echoing on a humid day. After all, nothing beats the sound of a banjo on the porch on a hot summer day in Arkansas!


Thanks for readin'
-J