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Rocky's Roots

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. 


Rocky's roots: 20th century women

Life was desolate and cold out on the eastern Montana prairie where I spent the first six years of my life. I was very sick as a young child with respiratory problems induced by a collapsed lung at birth and was frequently hospitalized. Because of my ill health, much of my time was spent indoors doing less physical activities. My preliminary introduction to using my voice came from singing songs with my father who grew up on a farm in Montana. He had learned a handful of cowboy songs from his mother's cattle ranching side of the family alongside his girl cousins (The Holsti Sisters) who performed at fairs and other events in the community. When my dad wasn't around to sing and play with me, I would spend countless hours at home singing along to various Disney movies and the The Wizard of Oz (Judy Garland's voice has influenced me from the first time I heard her sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I listened to that song over and over until I had it memorized. It was one of the first songs that I learned how to sing on my own and perform.

My family moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota a few months before my 6th birthday to a community with more opportunities for children to be immersed in the arts. Still, there weren't a whole lot of singing opportunities for children outside of school, church, and singing along to the radio. If learning songs from contemporary country radio stations and the two pop/rock radio stations we received in the area didn't satisfy you, as a kid the only other option you really had to learn music and sing with other children (without paying for music lessons or seeking out “special” opportunities) was to participate in children's musicals and other theatrical performances at the one historic community theater in town called the Matthew's Opera House located in Spearfish, SD. Having the opportunity to participate in this theatre community sparked my interest in learning more about the vocal styles of cabaret and vaudeville. In junior high I was introduced to the booming voices of Broadway pioneered by singers such as Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters. I knew that if I ever wanted to have a singing career that I needed to get to work fast. Enough about me and where I've come from. Let's take a look at some of the women who are the reasons why I am the way I am today.

Leontyne Price- My high school choir director introduced me to this soprano when I chose to sing Handel's aria Bel Piacere for the annual Solo and Ensemble Contest that year. I listened to a recording of her singing the aria and instantly felt a connection with her voice as she sang passionately in Italian. Price was born in Mississippi in 1927. After intense vocal training at the Juilliard School in New York City, Price rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera. Her rich, warm, undertones support her bell-like upper register and her delivery of words is immaculate. She has been my favorite voice in classical music for years.

Joni Mitchell- Mitchell was one of my biggest influences when I began writing lyrics as a late teen and young adult. Mitchell was born on the Canadian prairie in 1943. This multi-instrumentalist songwriter has been called “one of the greatest songwriters ever” by Rolling Stone. She began her career by performing in Saskatchewan's nightclubs and frequently busked the streets of Toronto. In 1965 she moved to the United States where she began an active career touring with her remarkable songs. She instantly found success with her clean yet raspy wide range and captivating songs filled with poetic imagery. Mitchell's 1971 hit album, Blue, was rated the 30th best album ever made in “Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. This album is definitely worth a listen if you haven't heard it already.

Edith Piaf – Piaf was born in 1915. This French Cabaret singer, songwriter, and actress has long been regarded as one of France's greatest international stars. Piaf most notably performed songs of love, loss, and sorrow weaving in autobiographical mentions throughout her lyrics. One of her most well known songs is “La Vie En Rose” (1946) which has touched the hearts of many people throughout the decades. I truly believe “La Vie En Rose” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Considered as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Piaf's voice and music spirit lives on globally.

Bessie Smith- Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894 and was the most popular female blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s. It's no surprise that she was given the nickname, Empress of the Blues. One notable song of hers is “Nobody knows you when you're down and out.” She is very important to American history given the era of her performance career and being an African American woman singer. She used her bluesy pipes to sing her way through the depression and also found work performing on Broadway. The recordings I've listened to are, of course, old and a bit fuzzy but I enjoy listening to them nonetheless. She has a smooth lower register that packs a punch with her swoopy, seductive styling and she'll grab your attention with a wicked belt during the climax of her songs. There's a heavy charm to her vocal performance and she'll leave you humming the blues all day.

Ella Fitzgerald- Fitzgreald is a legendary American Jazz singer. She was born in 1917 in Virginia and has a beautiful wide sweeping voice that she immersed in swing, bibop, jazz, blues, and traditional pop. She is known for collaborating with Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington who recorded several notable songs like “Cheek to Cheek” and “It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Aint got that Swing)”. Fitzgerald's voice always puts a smile on my face. She sings with strong animation and has phenomenal pitch over her challenging scat solos. There's nothing like listening to an Ella on a rainy day.

Maybelle Carter – Born in the mountainous region of Virginia in 1909, Carter grew up learning to play the autoharp, guitar, and banjo. She is a notable American country musician and singer who was an original member of the Carter Family. Mother Maybelle, a nickname given to her, would use her thumb to play melody lines on the guitar while keeping rhythm with her other fingers on the high strings. Her voice is one of my favorites to hear and sing along to. She has a deep and soothing vocal tone, like a lazy river in the sumer, that fits perfectly with her driving guitar style. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family's vocal lines were very influential in helping me learn how to sing classic country vocal harmonies.

Consuelo Velazquez- Consuelo was born in Mexico in 1916. She is a notable concert pianist, songwriter, and recording artist. In 1941, She wrote the song “Bessame Mucho” and it became an international hit. The way she sings and performs touches my senses in a way that only a woman who sings love songs in Spanish can do.

Astrud Gilberto – Gilberto is the female singer on the hit bossa nova jazz song “The Girl from Ipanema” which was recorded in 1964. She was born in Brazil and emigrated to the United States in 1963. She was given the Latin Jazz USA Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992 and was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2002.