Two years ago, O Brother Where Art Thou, a quirky movie loosely based on Homer's Odyssey and filled with Appalachian mountain music, created a mild stir at the box office. But its Grammy Award-winning music set off a virtual explosion of interest in American acoustic "roots music." The movie has spawned an interest in simple instruments like the jaw harp, the moonshine jug, and, especially, the old-fashioned washboard.
Sales of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack have soared past five million. Its old-timey sound has been a boon to washboard bands, even though a washboard is never heard in the movie.
"In constant sorrow through his days"
"I am the man of constant sorrow. . ."
A century ago, washboards were not percussion instruments. They were America's crude washing machines. Women, who did almost all of the laundry in those days, would soak clothes in warm, soapy water, then rub out the dirt on a washboard's rippled tin or brass surface, encased in a wooden frame the size of a small wall calendar.
But in dirt-poor sections of the American South, the washboard also became a humble instrument used in good-time music called "skiffle." It employed improvised instruments like the washtub bass, the cigar-box fiddle, and a simple comb and paper. Bluesmen like "Washboard Sam" played the board with thimbles on their fingertips.
"I've got the blues."
"I feel so low-down . . . "
Blues and bluegrass music evolved into something more sophisticated, and washboard playing faded in popularity. But a few diehards kept the genre alive. Some bought fancy glass washboards that have a tinklier sound, or turned their boards into a one-person band by attaching cowbells, bicycle horns, and empty tin cans. You can just imagine the hootin' and hollerin' that went on at this summer's annual International Washboard Festival in little Logan, Ohio. Dozens of washboard bands played, ten thousand people listened, and Columbus Washboards, the last company still making washboards in America, sold 2,000 boards.
Fifty-five-year-old washboard master Sonda Bruce, a retired cowgirl who proudly notes she's from "beautiful Cedar Point, Kansas, population, maybe fifty on a nice day!", missed the festival. But she has a ready outlet for her washboard virtuosity at the Emma Chase Café in the county seat of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.
After helpings of Sue Smith's fried catfish and rhubarb pie, Ms. Bruce, and anyone else from Chase County who has the nerve, gathers around keyboardist Bones Ownbey. He's the impresario of a local trio called the Prairie Goose Stompers. Pretty soon, everyone's riffing on the fiddle, the mandolin, a set of real buffalo bones, and, of course, the washboard. This down-home entourage even has its own name: the "Tallgrass Pickers."
"I learned to drink my likker"
"Way down in Costa Rikker."
"Ain't nobody's business what I do . . ."
The scratchy sound you hear is Sonda Bruce, raking a spoon over the washboard that's propped in her lap. With a nod from Dr. Bones, Ms. Bruce handed me a second washboard, and the two of us were off and scratching, she on the spoon and I with a snare drum brush. "Each washboard player has his own rhythm, because each washboard player hears his own beat," says Ms. Bruce.
Landphair: "Well you've always marched to your own drummer, right!"
Ms. Bruce: "Yes. Yes. But I can tell tonight while you're playing with us that you are a closet washboard player."
Landphair: "Gotta wait for just the right place to leap in here. The crowd has quieted in anticipation! Here we go!. I think I'm more of a spoons man."
Ms. Bruce: "Well you ARE a great spoon player."
Landphair: "Now is this a fine-tuned instrument?"
Ms. Bruce: "Oh yes, oh yes. This was my great-grandmother's washboard."
Landphair: "You mean actual soap has touched this?"
Ms. Bruce: "Yes, yes, yes!"
Landphair: "Well it's a beautiful instrument"
Ms. Bruce: "Thank you!"
Bones Ownbey says his Prairie Goose Stompers and tonight's Tallgrass Pickers are all about creating mirth in the audience. "The old-time music, there's something very American about it. It could be old people, could be little-bitty kids, it could be college-age kids that look like punkers [punk rockers]. And they'll start tappin' their toes, and they'll start movin' to it," says Mr. Ownbey. "I just don't think it'll ever die."
This night at Emma Chase's Café in Cottonwood Falls, three generations of Kansans play everything from the fiddle to the kazoo, as four generations laugh and tap their toes in time. That includes me, when I'm not strumming a well-worn, and much loved, old washboard.