Aside from the actual music on Frog’s new release of Clarence Williams’ washboard bands, John Collinson’s liner notes illustrate why these reissues are so important. Collinson suggests “the use of the washboard may have been an attempt to connect with the unsophisticated coloured migrants from the south [sic] who may have felt happier on hearing certain sounds they could relate to.” He also notes “The usual reason offered however is as substitute for an expensive drum kit.” The possibility of artistic choice, rather than commercial or financial compromise, never enters the discussion.
My first experience with a washboard band was on a high school trip to Disneyland (or was it Disney World? Which one is really humid and looks like a five-year old child’s mind after they get into the medicine cabinet?). Trumpet, trombone, clarinet and banjo sang and strummed to the heavens over the clang of stain-removing percussion.
Most of my fellow tourists viewed the group as either a colorful attraction or an annoyance, not unlike Mickey, Donald and those two destructive chipmunks. Yet since that visit, I’ve continued to be impressed with the panoply of sounds a skilled washboard player can conjure from their washboard, including scrapes, taps, alternating downward and upward strokes, and through a variety of auxiliary percussion mounted with an engineer’s resourcefulness. During a trip to Prague two years ago, I was greeted and then dazzled by the miniature cymbals of a washboardist playing with a group of Dixieland-loving Czech musicians on the Charles Bridge.
Barring a large influx of Southern migrants (or time travellers from the pre-war era) crossing the bridge, these musicians were simply expressing themselves with an instrument they found inspiring. Hearing the instrument or style as “old-fashioned” or “primitive” is the listener’s issue, not theirs.
As for Clarence Williams’ decision to use a washboard, even if it was based on calculation rather than preference, the sound of Floyd Casey, Bruce Johnson and Jasper Taylor is all we need. Rather than hearing Frog’s latest release as a record of earlier, simpler (read, simplistic) music making, we can listen to it as a unique artistic experience. Not to disagree with Frog, but there will never be anything “vintage” about that.
As for the actual music on that CD, check out my review on All About Jazz.