Blues players have long used kazoos, a pocket-sized resonating instrument that produces a buzzing sound, somewhat similar to that of cicadas. A kazoo player hums into a kazoo rather than blows, unlike reed instrument musicians. Kazoos could possibly be categorized as reed instruments, however, though they normally employ wax paper instead of reeds. Earlier models featured a strip of wax or tissue paper wrapped around a pocket comb. Although the history of kazoo-like instruments dates back hundreds of years to West Africa, legend has it that the first American-made kazoo was made by Alabama Vest, a man from Macon, Georgia, in the 1840s.

Some of the biggest users of kazoos are probably those musicians who played (or still play) cigar-box guitars in order to produce a more traditional blues sound. While playing they can simply open the cigar box and pull out a kazoo hidden inside, to fetch an accompanying sound without even having to bend over. If that is not the epitome of sound performance practicality, I don’t know what is.

Officially, it was an American named Warren Herbert Frost who got the first patent in 1883 for an invention he named a “kazoo.” Similar to the diddley bow, the kazoo quickly gained a reputation for being a musical toy for children. It was specifically called a “toy trumpet” at that time. Toy or not, wooden and other types of kazoos had been in use by black (and other) musicians much earlier, even before the outbreak of the American Civil War.   

The first manufactured kazoo appeared in the United States just after the turn of the century. It was made of metal and was patented by George D. Smith of Buffalo, New York on May 27, 1902. Mass production started in Eden, New York by the Original American Kazoo Company in 1916. By 1994, the company produced 1.5 million kazoos per year and was the only manufacturer of metal kazoos in North America.  

Jug bands and musical amateurs often use kazoo sounds to provide a comedic touch, but kazoos also play more important roles. For instance, in the Original Dixieland Jass [Jazz] Band’s Original 1921 recording of “Crazy Blues,” what the casual listener might mistake for a trombone solo is actually a kazoo solo by drummer Tony Sbarbaro. Red McKenzie played kazoo in a Mound City Blue Blowers 1929 film short. The Mound City Blue Blowers had a number of hit kazoo records in the early 1920s featuring Dick Slevin on metal kazoo and Red McKenzie on a comb-and-tissue-paper variation (although McKenzie also played metal kazoos). 

Kazoos were not limited to blues, jazz or comedy either. They are featured in many rock & roll favorites as well. For instance, they can be heard in songs by Del Shannon, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Queen. Even Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, a famous one-man band from the bay area, had a kazoo-employing hit song called “San Francisco Blues.” Covers mimicking Fuller’s style were later produced by blues-rock legends like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan.    

The record for most kazoos ever played simultaneously was set at a San Francisco Giants baseball game on August 9, 2010, when 9,000 kazoos formed the background sound for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Kazoos even have their national day in January. So, I hope you pulled out your kazoos on January 19th of this year and celebrated! Missed it? There’s always next year. Don’t forget to hang up a portrait of Jesse Fuller before you break open the champagne.

The Real Green Book

Fame and notoriety are circling the Golden Globe-winning film “The Green Book” as it prepares for more attention at the upcoming Oscars. It’s the story of a real-life bromance between a white bouncer and a black musician driving through the racism of the Deep South in the 1960s. The white driver was Tony Lip, the real father of writer Nick Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen). The black pianist, Don Shirley, is portrayed by Mahershala Ali, a Muslim. Shirley’s current family claims the movie is wildly inaccurate. Controversy still swirls around the movie as inappropriate words have also been uttered in interviews by both cast and directors.   

The latest controversy comes after the re-emergence of the tweet the younger Vallelonga sent following a rally in November 2015, where Donald Trump (then a presidential candidate) said: “I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [in the 9/11 attacks of 2001] was coming down.” Vallelonga wrote in response: “100% correct. Muslims in Jersey City were cheering when the towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news,” reported BBC News online.

It is true that white-on-black racism raged in Southern states prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Black musicians (especially blues players) could find very few venues in which to perform, except on the Chitlin’ Circuit (a string of black-owned juke joints). Even if famous black musicians were allowed to perform at a white venue, they were usually not accepted as overnight guests at hotels or inns in that city or town. This gave rise to the need for black performers (and other black travelers) to have a road map of places where they would be welcomed to stay the night. 

“The Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as The Green Book, was an annual travel guide catering to Black travelers in the 20th Century. Considering the deep racial divides caused by Jim Crow laws, the Green Book provided black families with a resource to navigate potential dangers in America at the time,” states the website www.blackamericaweb.com. “Postman and activist Victor Hugo Green began compiling data in his native New York regarding establishments that were friendly to Black patrons. In 1936, the first issue was published and its popularity skyrocketed in just four years’ time. After a brief hiatus during World War II, the book returned in 1946 with Green later changing the name of the book to The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide.”

The book was offered via a partnership with the Esso Standard Oil Company and other sponsors. The book’s tag line was “Now We Can Travel without Embarrassment.” It effectively listed homes that individuals and families could rent out, typically owned by other black families. Hotels, salons, garages, grocery stores, and restaurants were also listed, including those owned by white people who didn’t turn away black patrons. Just about every black musician (or black traveler) carried a copy in his back pocket or her purse.

Nothing lasts forever, not even Jim Crow laws. So as the civil rights movement began to take hold in the late 1950’s and onto the mid-60’s, the necessity of the guide began to lower naturally and the Green Book published its last issue in 1966.

Note: Also see Chapter 8 of Blood on the Cotton, entitled “The Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Diddley Bows

Musicologists consider the diddley bow to be the grandfather of the blues guitar, but what is it?

Apparently a cousin of the West African musical bow, the diddley bow (a home-made, one-string instrument) played a fundamental role in the development of the blues. Southern slaves and their descendants living in crude shacks managed to stretch a wire between a couple of nails on the wall and then played the instrument using a bottle neck slide that changed the sound pitch enough to produce the wailing, soulful sound that characterizes so many blues songs. Other variations included a “portable” diddley bow made from a plank, a wire, two nails and an old tin can for a bridge. A diddley bow is basically a slide guitar stripped down to its most elemental level.

However, at the beginning diddley bows were mostly viewed as primitive toys for children, who were the only ones playing them. As the blues started to come together from slave field cries and other sources such as prison gang work songs, some Southern black musicians began to take the instrument more seriously. They might not have had enough money to buy a bonafide guitar, but they could make their own diddley bow. Good diddley bow players were naturally seen as prospects for graduating to the more difficult guitar and other stringed instruments.

The diddley bow started to resemble a guitar more and more as black musicians used old cigar boxes attached to a variety of necks, such as ax handles. Later still, electric wires were attached to the cigar box model to produce a crude electric guitar. When connected to an amplifier and speakers the instrument produced a much higher sound volume. The wired model could thus be played more effectively  in front of large, noisy crowds. Necessity is often the mother of invention, but poverty plays a leading role as well. Poor black musicians singing the blues started using diddly bows as accompanying instruments. The sound of a slide on the high E string of a guitar is hauntingly similar to the sound a diddley bow produces.

“One notable performer of the instrument was the Mississippi blues musician Lonnie Pitchford, who used to demonstrate the instrument by stretching a wire between two nails hammered into the wood of a vertical beam making up part of the front porch of his home. Pitchford’s headstone, placed on his grave in 2000 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, is actually designed with a playable diddley bow on the side as requested by Pitchford’s family,” states Slideguitarist.com.

The same article says: “Recent performers who use similar instruments include New York City-based jazz pianist Cooper-Moore, American bluesman Seasick Steve, Samm Bennett, Danny Kroha, One String Willie, and blind musician Velcro Lewis. Jack White makes one at the beginning of the movie ‘It Might Get Loud,’ then after playing it quips: Who says you need to buy a guitar?”

Because the diddley bow is so easy to make, it was often the first musical instrument performed on by the legends of blues and rock music such as B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, “holy blues” player Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James, and Bo Diddley (who probably took his stage name from the diddley bow, though he suggested other sources). When Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling mail-order real guitars for very reasonable prices in the mid-1890s, blues music began to enjoy a tremendous new wave of popularity as black performers could finally get their hands on the real deal. Fashioning a diddley bow from shovels, gasoline cans, washboards and other seemingly non-musical objects has become a hobby. Websites such as cigarboxguitars.com will gladly provide construction details.

In the old South’s Jim Crow days, blacks had to fight against stubborn racial prejudice.

At country stores, blacks often had to wait until whites had finished shopping before they were allowed to buy anything. The Sears catalog liberated blacks from such discrimination by allowing them to anonymously order via the mail, even though many could barely read or write. And the Sears Catalog was important to the development of the Blues, as well.  The company has even been credited with contributing to the development of a unique genre of black southern music – the Delta blues.

“There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars,” musician and writer Chris Kjorness wrote in Reason, a libertarian magazine, in 2012. “And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co.” By 1908, anyone could buy a steel-string guitar from the catalog for $1.89, the equivalent of roughly $50.00 today. It was the cheapest harmony-generating instrument available on the mass market, Kjorness noted.

“What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of Jim Crow,” Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, wrote in a Twitter thread that was shared over 7,000 times…in the wake of the [recent] news of Sears’ demise. By allowing African Americans in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores, he wrote, the catalog “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.”

Note: For an incredible display of the instrument’s versatility, access a song performed by Seasick Steve on a washboard diddley bow. Go to Youtube: Seasick Steve – Roy’s Gang en Session Très Très Privée RTL2.

Essays on early blues music development