Adding upbeat percussion to a song can immediately cause toes to tap, heads to bob, and feet to shuffle. In short, it can give the music some swing! But swinging with a washboard? Those who were responsible for time-consuming household chores back in the day might take issue with that idea.
Folk percussion has always relied on items commonly found in any setting…such as a washboard. But Russel Roth states that even the washboard has a precursor. He describes it as “a modification of the jawbone”, for in rural settings people played the jawbone of farm animals such as mules. Roth goes on to say that “sticks or thimbled fingers drawn across the corrugations of the washbard produce a sound corresponding to that effected by scraping a stick along the teeth of the skeletal jaw”. It is this sharp, staccato rhythm that gives the washboard its unique sound.
Eventually, the washboard found its way into a variety of musical settings. Most of these were folk in nature, such as skiffle and jug band music, but the washboard seems to stand alone as the one folk instrument that was regularly used in the more urban, trendy settings of jazz and blues. An excellent example of jazz which features the washboard comes from the early music of Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong. Their 1927 recording of The Blues Stampede showcases Jimmy Bertrand on washboard as he backs up the remaining quartet of clarinet, cornet and piano. Floyd Casey, who played with Clarence Williams on sides such as Beer Garden Blues, is another well-respected jazz percussionist who played washboard.
Washboard infused blues found a great frontman in Chicago bluesman Washboard Sam (Robert Brown). Often accompanied by his half-brother Big Bill Broonzy, this prolific artist was known for both his playing and his songwriting skills. In the 30’s and 40’s juke boxes across the city held his records, but unfortunately Sam never successfully navigated the era of electric blues and his popularity waned. However, Rick “Cookin’” Sherry keeps the Chicago acoustic washboard scene alive to this day with his group Devil in a Woodpile.
The B-Side Growlers love playing old jazz and blues and giving it that folk feel by featuring the washboard just as it was in some of those early recordings . One such number is Washboard Swing, originally penned and recorded by Washboard Sam. The song has an infectious rhythm and even the lyrics compel the listener to move:
“Swing, come on and swing, when they play that washboard swing”.
Our version features Mary playing with metal picks on her fingers, though on other songs she makes use of an array of brushes to vary the washboard’s sound (check out our video below). We hope we have a chance to share this song with you sometime in person…and with modern conveniences such as the washing machine, freeing up time to come out should be no problem!
To see if the B-Side Growlers are playing nearby soon, check our Facebook page located here.
Roth, Russell. “On the Instrumental Origins of Jazz.” American Quarterly 4.4 (1952): 305-16. JSTOR. Web. 28 July 2015.
McCarthy, Albert. Jazz on Record: A Critical Guide to the First 50 Years, 1917-1967. London: Hanover Books, 1968. Print.