Diddley Bows

Hear a sample of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” played on a Diddley Bow:

The jumping off place for this BluesNotes on Diddley Bows is taken from Gerhard Kubik’s wonderful book, Africa & the Blues (University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

Ainslie,Scott.kff08.5644.srDBowWEBWriting about one-stringed instruments, Kubik cites David Evans wonderful “African-American One-Stringed Instruments” (Evans, 1970) and goes on to note that,

“Like many other African traditions and culture traits, the idea of the monochord zither seems to have smoldered on through the nineteenth century in an underground existence, perpetuated especially by children, and in the rare cases in which the instrument was perhaps observed by outsiders, it was not consider even worthy of report. Only when systematic research of the southern cultures began in the 1930s, does it become documented through photographs, and it was not recorded until the 1950s.”

YouTube Videos Featuring the Diddley Bow:

  1. The Cigar Box Guitar Explained

    at the Ships of the Sea Museum, Savannah, GA. [13:43]

  2. Parchman Farm Blues

    (Bukka White) [5:25] Recorded in the WSCA-FM studios by DJ Shawn Henderson on his Stay Tuned radio show.

  3. Rollin’ & Tumblin’ Blues/If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day

    (Robert Johnson) [3:46] Recorded at the Fiddle & Bow Society by an audience member.

This matches my experience with Diddley Bows and one-stringed instruments exactly. I first heard of these instruments from Romey Plum of the Lake Gaston area of eastern North Carolina, and subsequently from a variety of other Piedmont blues and gospel musicians. All these men spoke of the instruments with affection, as something from their childhood. Many of them made their first sounds on a stringed instrument fashioned from junk in the back yard or built on the sides of an out building, or in the case of Doug Quimby (of the Georgia Sea Island Singers), the wall outside his mother’s kitchen!
(Here is a picture of an unidentified player with a small bottle in his left hand, plucking the wire attached to the house. This photo is from the website Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi.)

As soon as other instruments became available, the one-strings were quickly abandoned by the players I knew, but their clear affection for the instruments drove me to begin building and playing them in the 1990s.

Kubik continues:

“In Africa, too, these instruments have been overlooked or not found worth reporting. For this reason we have notable gaps in our African distribution map. Monochord zithers are common in a relatively compact region of Africa including southeastern Nigeria, southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, and the southwestern tip of the Central African Republic….[the instruments] are played mostly by two (male) youngsters, one striking the string with two sticks, the other altering its pitch by stopping the string with a knife, bottle, or other object, often sliding along it.”

Kubik’s book is a treasure trove of similar information presented with scholarly care, but more with the enthusiasm that belies more than forty years of exploring and playing in the musical traditions of Africa and American.

It’s available from the University Press of Mississippi at: http//www.upress.state.ms.us

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