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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. 


Welcome to our blog

Greetings folks!

Thanks for checking out our blog page. We'll be keeping up with all the places we go and the things we see and do along the way here. Also, we get asked a lot of questions about our instruments, songs, the artists we draw from, and the songs we write ourselves. We'll be sure to keep you not only informed about us, but we'll talk about our music and the things we use to make it. If you have a question you'd like to see answered shoot us an email or talk to us at a show and you just might see it pop up here.

As for today, I'd like to talk about the term "Roots music". Namely, what does that mean and imply to us and what do we hope it says to our listeners when we use that term. It gets said a lot that American music has a complex and mixed history when it comes to our musical heritage, it's long considered the birthplace of the blues, jazz, and certain kinds of pop and rock styles as well. It has also given us the banjo, and arguably the autoharp, mountain dulcimer, and others. Suffice it to say, whether we invented the instrument or not, the rich heritages and cultures that crossed paths in our old American cities swapped techniques, songs, rhythms, and stories together that soon made the music we have today. When I think of American roots, I don't think about blues or jazz as they are now, I think about Scott Joplin penning the now famous "Maple Leaf Rag" or Stephen Foster writing "Oh! Susanna" even before that. There were others before them, but many more after them. Their long shadow over American music casts down upon the songs of Woody Guthrie, the trickling notes of Duke Ellington, and in between those men the bouncing and busy guitars of Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, and Robert Johnson to name a few.  When I think roots, I think of these times. To me, the 19th century composers turned songsters are kind of like our musical seeds with the recording artists of the 20's 30's and 40's reaching into the Americana soil and adding to that sound the nutrients of our core values and issues at the time, racial tensions, economic disparity, bank robbers, train hoppers, steam boats, and highways.  It is my wish to not stay firmly planted in this era of music but to let it permeate the fabric of my songs, I know Rocky feels this way too. Preservation is important of course, and I always hope that more people look into our roots and find the common musical heritage that's a part of all of us. Music has changed a lot from the days of peddling songs on staff paper from minstrel show to pub trying to get published but I believe our core values have never changed. Maybe you have a different image in your head wen you hear "roots music" and I'd love to hear it! Whatever the case may be, musicians are often self-defined and that's a large part of our definition. 

Thanks for readin!