“First time that I played washboard, I just won’t forget this…I was on stage had my thimbles on and two thimbles just popped off and just went out and that was just the funniest thing and I just had to…move right on, keep going.” – Tonya Locklear
In the mid to late 1800s, Creole musicians in southwest Louisiana started playing washboards. One of the reasons is that they could not afford the percussion instruments in stores. Today, many music genres in the United States feature this seemingly mundane household tool, the most prominent ones being Cajun, Zydeco and Jazz music.
But how did it find its way into blues music? One theory points to the geographic proximity between Louisiana, celebrated for its jazz and Creole music tradition, and the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues. In any case, washboard became a staple in blues music by the 1930s. Many bluesmen played washboard, often among other instruments, and some of them recorded.
Robert Young, better known as Washboard Slim, pioneered washboard playing in the early twentieth century. Expanding the musical possibilities of the washboard, Slim added frying pans, a hubcap, pot lids, a cowbell, and an old rubber car horn to his washboard. The percussive instrument now added both rhythm and diverse colours to the music. As a musician, Slim accompanied many blues giants such as Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee. As an inventor, Slim began a tradition in adorning washboards with ordinary objects in blues music. His contribution to American music was so great that his original washboard sits now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History/
Another successful washboard player was Robert Brown with a fitting stage name – Washboard Sam. Ten years younger than Slim, Sam was born in
Arkansas, a state adjacent to both Louisiana and Mississippi. Washboard likely found its way into his music through jug bands in Memphis, where he lived in the 1920s. Jug bands often played a mixture of Memphis blues, ragtime, and jazz music on home-made instruments. Interwoven are the traditions of jazz and blues, their use of the washboard, and the home of today’s largest folk music festivals, Louisiana. Sam brought these musical influences to Chicago, where he rose to fame in the late 1930s and 1940s. In one of Washboard Sam’s most famous songs, “Easy Riding Mama,” he sings while strumming on his washboard. Less elaborate than Slim’s, Sam’s washboard has one plate as its main attachment.
One living washboard bluesman is Chaz Leary, most well known in New Orleans, having starred in one of the city’s commercials and performed at various music festivals there. A fan says of Chaz, “If you have Chaz, who needs drums?” Continuing Slim’s tradition, Chaz adorned his washboard with two hotel call bells that serve as drums; a wooden frame and block beneath for rhythmic accents; and thimbles that sound as a snare drum over the ridges. Born in New York, far from the cities of blues and washboard music, Chaz benefited from easy access to records today. He mastered the washboard by listening to Jazz records: “You know the record Jazz at Massey Hall? The drum solo Max Roach does on ‘Salt Peanuts’? I used to be able to play that note for note.”
In the Locklear family, Tonya is the washboard player. Keeping with her background in classical piano, she again plays a percussive instrument. How did she come to the washboard? What can she bring to the blues family group? See the video below to find out!
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE WASHBOARD:
As a sophomore and public policy major at Duke, I took my first documentary studies course last semester. I was immediately drawn to the medium’s potential for giving a voice to the marginalized and facilitating social change. In addition to learning the technical aspects of the craft, I found “Multimedia Documentary” appealing because I wished to engage with the community around me. Blues music intrigued me, as I had minimal exposure to traditional roots music. Furthermore, I identified strongly with the Music Maker Relief foundation’s mission. Through the class, I have come to embrace blues music and the musicians who sing from their heart. In the summer, I will build upon the skills I have acquired in this class in the Far East. I will continue my documentary filmmaking education by starting production on a documentary on the Chinese Civil War in my native Taiwan. Expressing their heritage and identities through blues music, Lakota John and his family have inspired me to do the same with my endeavor this summer and beyond.
Look for more work from the Center for Documentary Studies students in future posts!