Monday, 15 June 2015

Offbeat Instruments In Old Time Music

Louisville-Zither-Club We have a certain image of the instruments used during the 1920's birth of the Blues and Country music. Guitars, Banjos, Fiddles, Harmonicas, Pianos, Mandolins and the occasional Autoharp, along with whatever jerry-rigged instruments Jug Bands cobbled together, and that's pretty much it. But that's quite wrong, a trip through the Sears & Roebuck Catalogs of the age which were commonly used to order instruments even in most rural areas show pages of Zithers, Harp-Guitars, Cellos and Harmoniums for sale. And we know that some rural folk did indeed play them. Then there were locally produced instruments such as the Mountain Dulcimer, Washboard, Washtub Bass, Musical Saw and the Quills. I've even seen an old photo of a stringband standing in front of a saloon proudly showing off their full size concert harp. Lord knows what they played on it.

The problem was that in the early days of recordings many instruments simply did not record well given the crude technology of the time. Banjos, Fiddles and Pianos recorded quite well from the start, they were loud, clear and distinct. In fact the banjo, which had been around for over a century as a African-American instrument, became wildly popular in the Ragtime Age when white, tuxedoed players like Fred Van Epps and Vess Ossman had numerous hit records with their rapid fire instrumentals. Guitars by comparison, now seen as the archetypal blues, folk and country instrument, took longer to catch on, they were too quiet to record well at first. It's noteworthy that the first big selling rural artists like Eck Robertson, Fiddling John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon and Papa Charlie Jackson played fiddle or banjo. Soon enough the guitar pushed it's way in and took over. Of course it was sexier than the weedy fiddles or clanging banjos. On the other hand there's the autoharp. They had been around since the 1900's and sold well enough since they were relatively easy to play, however they did not record well and might have been largely forgotten if it were not for the fact that two of the biggest names in country music, The Carter Family and Ernest Stoneman used them on their hit records. By comparison take the Mountain Dulcimer. Like the autoharp they are easy to play and in fact have obvious advantages in that since they only have three or four strings they are a lot easier to tune. They are also louder. Due to the vagaries of taste however they were never very popular as recording instruments and never had a hit-maker like Stoneman or the Carters to champion them. The instrument might have slipped into complete obscurity if folk revivalists like Jean Ritchie, John Jacob Niles, Richard Farina and Mike Seeger hadn't championed them in the 1950's and 1960's. The mandolin is another example of the vagaries of taste. They had been subject of an odd fad in the 1910's when large all-mandolin orchestras briefly became all the rage. The dawning of the electric Honky Tonk era might have pushed them to the sidelines if it were not for Bill Monroe's bluegrass bands and various brother duos like the Louvins and the Stanleys. Now it is literally impossible to have a bluegrass band without one. I think it may actually be a bylaw. By contrast the bodhran, a hand-held drum common in folk music of the Celtic Fringe of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and the Isle Of Man would have been a perfect addiction to Bluegrass, Country Stringbands or Jugbands. However the numorous immigrants from these Gaelic lands did not move to Appalachia and the Ozarks so this never happened.

There were also the commercial decisions made by record companies. Once certain instruments and genres sold well record companies rushed to sign up more of the same while more regional and eccentric tastes fell by the wayside. A few oddities still managed to slip through;


Henry Thomas (1874 - 1950's) was a Texas based bluesman who recorded in the twenties. He was actually a full generation older than other 1920's bluesmen which was reflected both in his repertoire, which ranged from standard blues to rags and minstrel tunes, as well as his use of the quills. A crude instrument known since ancient times, the quills were simply a set of several short flutes cut from hollowed out reeds and attached to a rack. The ancient Greeks referred to a similar instrument as the Pan Flute. Since the quills were easy to play, compact, and could be made by any handy craftsman they were quite popular amongst black slaves as well as poor white farmers, sailors and other rural folk, including children, going back to colonial times. They were not considered a respectable instrument however and their reedy sound did not record well and by the turn of the century they had been superseded by the harmonica which had the advantage of being a far more versatile instrument, not to mention louder, as well as being sturdier and more compact. Thomas, a singer/guitarist, was the only notable recording artist who used the quills, which he played using neck mounted rack similar to the ones later used by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. He recorded some twenty three sides for Vocalion throughout the twenties. The quills add a distinctive touch to his fairly upbeat tunes as the perfect counterpart to his equally reedy tenor voice.


Thomas was best known for his classic "Bull Doze Blues" later covered by Canned Heat. Thomas was a mysterious figure about whom little is known in fact exact dates for his birth and death are not confirmed. Besides Thomas a few other rural artists would be recorded playing the quills in later years by John and Alan Lomax.




The harp-guitar was one of the many odd hybrid instruments that was briefly popular in the late Victorian era. A large and unwieldy instrument the harp-guitar was a guitar with a extra large body topped with several extra strings that could be strummed to add extra body to the melody picked out or chorded on the fretboard. The harp-guitar was so large and bulky that shorter players actually had to prop it up on a stand. They were not an instrument that came from rural America but were instead a modification of the lutes used in Europe since the Renaissance. They probably made their way to rural audiences via vaudeville where odd instrumental acts were not unusual. A few photos from this era show the instrument. Too awkward and bulky to be really popular they could however be easily be bought through the Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalogs even in remote rural areas and they can occasionally still be found in antique shops.


Alfred Karnes was one of the artists recorded at the legendary Bristol Sessions set up by producer Ralph Peer in 1927 which included such major figures as The Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers and Ernest Stoneman. Karnes was a singing preacher who had never recorded before. He showed up with his harp-guitar which he played using a distinct slapping sound while picking out the guitar melodies and using the harp strings to strum a backing. This gave his records the illusion of playing two guitars, an effect also made by Maybell Carter's innovative duel picking and strumming style. He also sung his gospel songs in a ringing stentorian baritone far removed from the nasal twang of the likes of Jimmy Rodgers or Charlie Poole. His best known songs were the rousing "I'm Bound For The Promised Land", "To The Work" and the mournful "Where We'll Never Grow Old". At the Bristol Sessions Karnes is believed to have played and sang backups with another singing preacher from Corbin, Kentucky named Ernest Phipps who recorded songs like "I Want To Go Where Jesus Is" backed by a stringband. However the details are sketchy and the audio evidence is unclear.


Given the excellence of his recordings Karnes could have single-highhandedly popularized the harp-guitar if he had chosen to seriously pursue a serious musical career. However unlike the stars of the Bristol sessions like Rodgers, Stoneman and the Carters, Karnes had little interest in doing so and after his promising start Karnes made a few other recordings before returning to preaching for the rest of his life. He died in 1958 just a few years to soon for the folk revival of the early sixties which would lead to the rediscovery of contemporaries like Maybell Carter, Roscoe Holcomb and Hobart Smith and it certainly would have done the same for Karnes and his harp-guitar.


Another more obscure group to use the harp-guitar was The Gibbs Stringband who recorded six sides for for Paramount Records in 1927 and six more in 1930 for Vocalion. The Gibbs Brothers were Bob (banjo), Joe (guitar) and Hugh (harp-guitar) with James Jackson (fiddle) and Sam Spencer (vocals). Their records are standard stringband fare, well done and lively, especially on "I'm Going Crazy". However, as with the Ernest Phipps records, in a group context it is difficult to tell the difference between a harp-guitar and regular guitar. Clearly the harp-guitar really shined as a solo instrument in the hands of someone with the power of Alfred Karnes. The Gibbs Band made no further records and dropped from sight.



As it was the instrument, too bulky to be truly popular, fell into obscurity. As an added note there exists an old photo of what appears to be old time country gospel group (note what appears to be bible in the older man's hands) named Leigh & Frieda Northrup and John & Maude Montgomery, featuring a fiddle and harp-guitar with a vocal duo. This clearly shows that at least a few other rural groups were using the harp-guitar at the time. Unfortunately the Northrup & Montgomery group apparently did not record so thus missing another chance to preserve this peculiar instrument.


UPDATE; After I posted this someone did some research on these folks and discovered they were indeed preachers who lived in Tillamook County, Oregon where they built Bethel Mission Church around 1916 which is probably when this photo was taken judging by the clothes. They probably never saw the inside of a studio or radio station sadly.



The zither is a multi-stringed harp-like instrument having a hollow wooden body to act as a sound box (unlike a true harp which has no body at all) having anywhere from a dozen two dozen strings. Unlike most folk instruments used in North America which came from the British Isles (except the banjo, which is African in origin), the zither came from central Europe. Specifically Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland and Scandinavia and was brought by the waves of immigrants who came from these lands starting in the mid-nineteenth century. There were numerous different types of zither each with different names, shapes and numbers of strings but the German type would become the standard with it's harp-like shape, usually around a foot and half by fourteen inches in size, with anywhere from 25 to 35 strings. They were invariably painted black with a floral design. These zithers were quite common and any Sears & Roebuck catalog of the 1900's and 1910's will always have a page or two of these models. They can often still be found cheaply in antique stores today. By the 1920's however they had fallen out of fashion.


arionzither The zither's downfall can be traced to some of the usual suspects. It's gentle sound did not record well. It's delicate and intricate finger picking, while suitable for slow ballads, was completely unsuited to accompany the more aggressive dance tunes, rags and fiddle breakdowns that became popular. With their multiple strings they were also difficult to keep in tune. Essentially the zither was made obsolete by the invention of the autoharp, which kept the basic shape and size of the zither while adding the distinctive tonebars which allowed the instrument to be chorded and strummed vigorously enough to accompany other instruments. It was also therefore easier to play. Zithers were also victims of the xenophobia of World War One when all things German became taboo.

dolceola_ad-1906 Washington Phillips was one of the most enigmatic Gospel/Blues singers of the 1920's. For decades little was known about his life and death, and nobody knew what he looked like. This is true for other figures like Blind Blake (of whom one photo exists, but little else is known) but Phillips is unique in that for decades nobody was even sure what instrument he played. The Texas based singer recorded a series of sides in 1927 and again in 1929 for Columbia records, and then dropped out of sight. On these unique records he sings in a gently drawling, somewhat quavering, tenor accompanied by an oddly chiming zither-like instrument which gives him an almost ethereal sound. Originally it was insisted that he was playing an odd instrument called a dolceola, an equally enigmatic and rarely recorded instrument of which few examples exist. The dolceola was basically a zither with a keyboard attached which made it sound like a tiny piano or harpsichord. They were only made for a few years and then discontinued and were seen mostly as a novelty instrument. Virtually the only person who is known for sure to have occasionally played around with one is fellow Texan Leadbelly so it's possible for Phillips to have had one. However the only real evidence he did so was the producer's notes for the original recordings. However eyewitness reports seem to indicate a zither and the issue became a matter of heated debate for years. However in the 1980's a photo surfaced in a Columbia Records catalog which showed Phillips holding two instruments which are clearly zithers. That should have ended the debate. But of course it did not and the powerful dolceola lobby is quite stubborn. Audio evidence is completely subjective as everyone listening to scratchy old 78's tends to hear something different. Some hear keyboard strikes, some do not. I can't tell but personally I prefer the zither theory on the grounds that;


1) The zither was a fairly common instrument in the turn of the century (albeit not amongst black musicians) and easy enough to find. Whereas the dolceola was always an obscure novelty instrument only available for a few years. It's always possible that Phillips could have found one of course, Leadbelly obviously did, but the odds are definitely with the zither.
2) All the eyewitness accounts about Phillips that have surfaced (of which there are admittedly only a few) consistently describe a zither type instrument played by strumming and plucking, not a keyboard instrument. That's not a mistaken impression anybody is likely to make. The only real evidence for a dolceola is that notation in the Columbia Record's files, which could have been made later and might indeed be a mistake.
3) Listening to the Leadbelly track, which everybody agrees is definitely a dolceoa, sounds quite different from the Phillips records.
4) Then there's that photo. After all what are the odds that Phillips happened to be sitting around when a photographer handed him two zithers, said "Here hold these and say cheese!" and then snapped a quick photo? And even if he did why would Columbia Records then choose that photo for their catalog if he played a completely different instrument?
Washington Phillips did not record after 1929 and for years it was assumed that he died in 1938 after being committed to an insane asylum. However recent research revealed that he actually returned to preaching and died in 1954, outliving the far more famous Leadbelly who died in 1949. Phillips' recordings represent a gentle and charming contrast to the Hellfire and Brimstone more commonly associated with rural gospel music. Some of his songs were later covered by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.


Although not normally used by rural musicians (at least those who recorded) there is one other example of a group who clearly did use a classic German style zither. The Perry County Music Makers were Nonnie Smith Presson on zither and vocals, her brother Bulow Smith on vocals and guitar and occasionally a harmonica player, Nonnie was apparently the main songwriter. They recorded four sides for Vocalion Records in Knowville in 1930 in which Nonnie's zither is the main instrument and can therefore be compared to Washington Phillips. Nonnie and Phillips do playing the same basic instrument although she is much more fluid, not to mention louder. Unlike most of the other artists here Nonnie and Bulow. although never very successful in the 30's did live long enough to be rediscovered and and recorded two albums in the 1970's before she died in 1970.


The organ is the oldest mechanical instrument known to man, having existed since the late middle ages. These early organs were massive, honking monsters powered by large bellows operated by separate assistants. Clearly they were not portable and were limited to large churches and the occasional palace. By the late renaissance smaller, more portable models had been invented using hand bellows, basically like an accordion. The reed organ was the last pre-electronic organ developed and some were small enough to be reasonably portable, at least if you had a car. The harmonium was even more portable, being about twice the size of an accordion and operated much the same way. They were reasonably affordable and commonly sold through mail order. They took a while to catch on as recorded instruments however. Their sound, while easily loud enough, did not record well at first. Their rather blaring honk tended to overwhelm everything else and the notes seemed to blur together. By the 1920's these technical problems had mostly been worked out, however their were still cultural issues to restrict the use of organs in secular music. The organ had always been seen, at least in popular tastes, as a church instrument. Using the organ for blues, country, jazz or ragtime would have been seen almost as blasphemy. Fats Waller would make some jazz recordings in the 1940's but it was not until the 1950's that figures like Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff would score commercial hits using the organ, and even then there was controversy. Prior to then it was mostly limited to some gospel recordings, at least those denominations which allowed musical instruments at all. The harmonium was made obsolete by small electric organs although oddly they did catch on in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal (presumably brought by missionaries) where they are still quite common.


The Jubilee Gospel Team were a black trio from Georgia who made a series of recordings in 1928. Like most gospel groups at the time (and now for that matter) their repertoire is fairly limited. Basically they have two tempos; slow and slightly faster. Structurally the songs are typical call and response. They are fairly lively though and the organ adds depth to the records. A couple of records like "Dry Bones In The Valley" have an urgent string-of-consciousness sound. Little else is known about the group and what happened to them other than the probability they were from Virginia.


Luther Magby was a gospel singer from from Georgia who made only two recordings in 1927. He used a harmonium in a fast paced rhythmic style that was well suited to his sharp, slurring voice. He is also backed by a single anonymous tambourine player. The results make for a lively and upbeat single although once again the songs do sound very similar and one wonders if Magby had any other more varied material in his repertoire. Unfortunately he made no more recordings and little more is known of him.


One of the few non-religious groups to use the instruments were the obscure Reeves White County Revelers from White County, Arkansas and made up of three Reeves Brothers; Ike and Ira on fiddle, Lloyd on piano and vocals and Fred Rumble on guitar. Pianos were already somewhat odd in stringbands but not unknown, however when they arrived at Chicago in 1928 to record they discovered that the studio amazingly did not have a piano so Lloyd had to make do with a reed organ. The resulting singles are highly unusual in combining traditional stringband fare like "Arkansas Traveler" and "Shortning Bread" with the fiddles battling their way through a fog of blaring organ. Purist collectors of stringband 78's find this cacophony difficult to wade through but they do have a distinctive sound that somehow sounds even more out of time than other stringbands in spite of their more "modern" flourishes. They were brought back to the studio six weeks later to record a second series of more standard stringband tunes. The Ramblers then returned to Arkansas and made no further recordings although they remained active into the sixties.



John Jacob Niles (1892 - 1980) is not normally seen as a rural performer, he was a serious musicologist with a degree from Cincinatti University as well as studying in France who did an extensive study of traditional ballads. However he had genuine rural southern roots having been born in Kentucky, who had been performing traditional ballads since childhood. He played an odd version of the Mountain Dulcimer he made himself. The Mountain Dulcimer was a simplified version of various strummed zithers brought to America by immigrants from The British Isles, Germany and Scandinavia. These instruments had various numbers of strings and names like the hummel (Swiss), kantele (Finnish), langleik (Norwegian) and the scheitholt (German). The Mountain Dulcimer came from Appalachia and had either three or four strings grouped in sets of two, similar to the German scheitholt. Held in the lap or on a table and played with a vigorous strumming motion, the first set of strings were fretted like a guitar using a wooden slider while the second set of strings were unfretted and acted as drones giving the instrument a buzzing echo effect. Easy to play and tune it was also useful to accompany a ballad singer or a string band although it lacks the complexity for a good solo. In spite of these advantages it was never popular as a recorded instrument, partly for cultural reasons. The Dulcimer's very ease of play made it popular with women singers but thus not popular with men who preferred the more flashy fiddles, banjos, guitars or mandolins.


From childhood John Jacob Niles designed and built his own unique instruments which combined a body based on the old European lute with the basic string setup of the Mountain Dulcimer for a unique instrument that was at least twice the size of the usual dulcimer. The lute was an old European stringed instrument that dated back to the Middle Ages when it became the choice instrument of minstrels and troubadours. It had a large oval body and a thick neck and a distinctive bent head and multiple strings played with intricate finger plucking creating a delicate sound. The lute was fiendishly difficult to play or keep in tune and not suitable to play fast dances or accompany a string band. By the late restoration period it was falling out fashion to be replaced by far more versatile and user-friendly guitars and mandolins. Paintings of the era often show a musician happily playing a guitar while a lute sits unused in a corner, dusty and forlorn. They were never common in America but the studious Niles could have easily seen pictures of one and used it as a model for his homemade version of the smaller mountain dulcimer.
Niles researched old Anglo-Celtic ballads popular in his Kentucky home and sang them in a breathless, ghostly tenor that seemed enveloped in the mists of time beyond the mountains of Appalachia to the foggy Highlands of Scotland, the sunny meadows of England, the hills of Wales and the fields of Ireland. His dulcimer playing was rudimentary at best, often little more than fragmentary strumming that could barely be heard. By the time he started recording in 1938 his style was already so archaic as to be positively prehistoric, even in Appalachia, and his small audience was mostly made of young, university educated urban folkies in the late 1950's and early 60's folk revival. Too offbeat and weird to have ever found a larger audience he nonetheless influenced the next generation of folkies like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Jean Richie, the latter of whom would popularize the dulcimer with a far more dexterous style. He continued playing up his death.


Mamie Forehand was a gospel singer along with her guitarist husband A.C. who recorded two singles (along with a couple of out-takes) in Memphis in 1927. They were apparently rather elderly and their origins are unknown but were presumably from Tennessee or neighboring Arkansas or Missouri. Tamborines were quite common in black Baptist and Pentecostal churches but somewhere along the road Mamie Forehand found a pair of hand cymbals, an instrument known from the Orient and rarely, if ever, used in rural music black or white. The cymbals were small, delicate and tuned to a specific pitch and were played like Spanish castanets. They are not used with the same staccato urgency however and instead used with a softly played simple rhythm that is barely audible on the tracks sung by A.C., especially given his guitar and harmonica playing. The tracks sung by Mamie are softer and with less backing from A.C. and thus her cymbals are more clearly heard. The Forehand's records are gentle and intimate and like those of Washington Phillips are reminder of the softer side of gospel. Unlike Phillips their records were, and remain obscure and the Forehand's subsequent whereabouts are unknown but it's safe to assume they're long gone.

Normally seen as a child's toy, the kazzoo was occasionally used by blues and country musicians,both black and white, as a sort of novelty version of the harmonica. It recorded reasonably well and unlike the harmonica it required no skill and could be played hands free. It quickly fell out out of fashion to be replaced by the far more expressive, and far less goofy sounding, harmonica. James Wiggans was a piano playing bluesman who recorded a few records for Paramount Records including the original version of "Keep A Knockin" later covered in a classic version by Little Richard. Kazoos were also used by a few other black artists particularly on Paramount Records.


Jug Bands and other rural songsters, black and white, were known for making use of a number of improvised and Jerry-rigged homemade instruments as the iconic Moonshine Jugs, Washboards, Washtub Bass, Musical Saw, and Spoons. In fact all of these are still in some use today in some form. One of the oddest improvised instruments to have a brief heyday was the stovepipe. In spite of it's rather intimidating name which suggests something to be used by Cabaret Voltaire or S.P.K, the stovepipe was simply a length of stove pipe tapered at the ends which the player hummed, blew, whistled or stuttered into rather like a combination of the jug and kazoo. The results were the limited, monotonous and downright silly sounding, it's even less expressive than the kazoo. Still at least two black songsters chose to not only specialize in the instrument but made it their trademark. Sweet Papa Stovepipe who recorded for Paramount Records (of course) in 1926 and his rival Stovepipe Number 1 who recorded for Paramount, Columbia and OKeh in the 1920's. Both were older than the usual bluesman and their materiel suggests they started out in the 1910's which is probably when the stovepipe had it's day, such as it was. Stovepipe Number 1 (real name Sam Jones) was fairly versatile recording not only solo but also with a band from 1924 to 1930.


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