Innovation During the Folk Movement
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 by Frank Shortt
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Most folk singers were poor folks. To own a guitar or banjo of any import was a rarity. Most poor folk singers treasured their instruments, but often allowed other singers to use their precious possessions. The Skiffle Movement, said to have originated in the U.K. came about because of the scarcity of instruments that caused many musicians to improvise with homemade instruments.

Instruments used to make music during the so-called Skiffle era were not invented during the Skiffle Movement, but in fact, were plagiarized from many sources. During the slave era of the U.S. many homemade instruments were created by the slaves themselves as they had no money to purchase instruments, and the need was the mother of their invention. Some of these instruments probably were used even before there was a slave brought to America from Africa.

Washboard: This instrument was probably around ever since time began and folks began wearing clothes. A rough surface was needed that was both portable and rough enough to create an abrasive effect on the clothes to remove dirt. When the first washboards were made, they were probably flat pieces of wood with grooves worked into them to create the abrasive effect. Soon, users of the great invention began to hear the rhythm created as clothes were pushed back and forth along the surface of the board. Rhythm was needed as ancient earthlings began the art of singing. Many types of washboard was used during the early folk movement. Additions were added as music became more sophisticated.  (show washboard example)

Jugs:  To play a jug, the musician will hold the mouth of the jug about an inch away from their mouth. He then emits a blast of sound, made by buzzing the lips, directly into the jug. The jug does not touch the musician’s mouth only serving as a resonating chamber to amplify and enrich the sound made by the buzzer’s lips. When the musician wishes to change the pitch, he simply loosens or tightens his lips. As a musician becomes an accomplished jug player, he might have a two-octave range.

Washtub bass: Often referred to as the gut-bucket, this instrument is very easily made. Just buy a galvanized washtub, a strong piece of string, and a stout pole, usually made from hickory or oak. Early musicians were said to have ‘gut strings’ on their guitars if they were of the classical variety, thus the use of one of the heavier strings for the bass instrument was referred to as ‘gut’. Attach the string to the center of the tub by drilling a hole in the center of the tub, tying a knot in the string to prevent it coming through each time the instrument is played then attach the other end of the string to the top of the  pole that has a slot to fit on the edge of the tub. Variations in tone is derived by pulling or loosening the attached string in tune to whichever instrument is being backed up.

Jody Gibson, a musician who has been inducted into the Rock-a-Billy hall of fame for his achievements in R-A-B music, was also an inventor of different instruments as the need arose. One that gained some fame as he played in England, America, and eventually at the Newport Folk Festival, was called the bass fazoodle. It is a classic example of instruments used in the Skiffle Movement in music. It was made from an aluminum garbage can, with some f-holes cut into it for acoustics and with a twelve string guitar neck strung like a bass, and tuned as such. The accompanying photos will show the instrument being used at gigs in the Newport area.  Jody’s record that gained him some notoriety was recorded under the name Joe D. Gibson on the TETRA label and was entitled, “Good Morning Captain”. After Jody’s rendition of this song, several other performers used his version to record the song, including Dolly Parton and Sheb Wooley.


Jody playing his invention        Jody (center), with daughter Joyce and son Dave

Innovative musicians throughout the folk movement also made cigar box fiddles, played musical saws (allowing the saw to be bent with one hand and thumping the saw with the thumb of the other to emit the sound), they also made comb and paper kazoos from a comb and tissue paper. The paper kazoo is played by holding the completed instrument away from the lips and buzzing into it the desired tune. Acoustic guitars of all kinds, as well as banjoes, were used along with the invented varieties. One band of renown, which  used a variety of ‘invented instruments’, were Spike Jones and his City Slickers. These emitted some of the craziest sounds known to mankind.

Wherever and whenever mankind throughout the ages desired the sounds of music, he would always invent something to accomplish the desired affects!

The Folk Movement in America is said to have begun in the 1940’s after most of the recipients had survived the Great Depression. One of the most touted leaders was Woodie Guthrie, a dust bowl survivor, and critic of most things government.  His lyrics attacked ecology, poverty, and were also a big pusher of unions. Josh White and Burl Ives were also names that come to mind, as well as, a later proponent, Pete Seeger.