Washtub Bass - History

History

Ethnomusicologists trace the origins of the instrument to the 'ground harp' - a version that uses a piece of bark or an animal skin stretched over a pit as a resonator. The ang-bindi made by the Baka people of the Congo is but one example of this instrument found among tribal societies in Africa and Southeast Asia, and it lends its name to the generic term inbindi for all related instruments. Evolution of design, including the use of more portable resonators, has led to many variations, such as the dan bau (Vietnam) and gopichand (India), and more recently, the "electric one-string", which amplifies the sound using a pickup.

The washtub bass is sometimes used in a jug band, often accompanied by a washboard as a percussion instrument. Jug bands, first known as "spasm bands", were popular especially among African-Americans around 1900 in New Orleans and reached a height of popularity between 1925 and 1935 in Memphis and Louisville.

At about the same time, European-Americans of Appalachia were using the instrument in "old-timey" folk music. A musical style known as "gut-bucket blues" came out of the jug band scene, and was cited by Sam Phillips of Sun Records as the type of music he was seeking when he first recorded Elvis Presley.

In English skiffle bands and Australian and New Zealand bush bands, the same sort of bass has a tea chest as a resonator. Before the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney's band, The Quarrymen, featured a tea-chest bass, as did many young bands around 1956.

A folk music revival in the U.S. in the early 1960s re-ignited interest in the washtub bass and jug band music. Bands included Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions which later became The Grateful Dead, and, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band featuring Fritz Richmond on bass.

According to Willie "The Lion" Smith's autobiography, the term "gutbucket" comes from "Negro families" who all owned their own pail, or bucket, and will get it filled with the makings for chitterlings. The term "gutbucket" came from playing a lowdown style of music.

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