The Dillo Decade

Austin has been the epicenter of Texas music for decades. Some have come to know such music through the nationally televised “Austin City Limits,” a television program, launched by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) member television station KLRU, and broadcast on many PBS stations around the United States. The show was created in 1974 by Bill Arhos, who died in 2015 at the age of 80, but his program can still be viewed on PBS stations around the nation.

However, Austin had built a reputation as a center for Texas music long before ACL came along. Small musical venues dotted Austin’s sixth street, but establishments such as the Vulcan Gas Company and the Continental Club offered larger stages and bigger nightly incomes. But the Vulcan Gas Company closed in 1970, leaving a vacuum for a large musical venue in Austin. Then something special happened that same year: Armadillo World Headquarters opened in south Austin, an event that rocked the city’s musical world. Something of a musical miracle occurred as hippies and rednecks flocked to the same venue. When a beer garden was added later, the Dillo was definitely the place to go.

Launched in August 1970 in a converted National Guard building by Eddie Wilson and friends, the Dillo quickly became one the hottest joints around. “With an eventual capacity of 1,500, the hall featured a varied fare of blues, rock, jazz, folk and country music in an informal, open atmosphere. By being able to host such top touring acts as Frank Zappa, the Pointer Sisters, Bruce Springsteen, and members of the Grateful Dead, the Armadillo brought to Austin a variety of musical groups that smaller clubs or other local entities might never have booked. Since outstanding local or regional artists often opened these shows, the Armadillo also gave vital exposure to such future stars as Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” explained Eddie in an interview.

Images of Texas blues stars as well as rock and country western singers adorned the walls of the cavernous establishment. “The Armadillo’s eclectic concert calendar brought together different, sometimes disparate, sectors of the community,” states the Texas State Historical Association. In a story from its September 9, 1974 edition, Time magazine wrote that the Armadillo was to the Austin music scene what the Fillmore had been to the emergence of rock music in the 1960s. 

Other performers who played at the storied concert hall included Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal, Dr. John the Night Tripper, Frank Zappa, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the New Riders of the Purple. Those halcyon days are long gone, however, as finances would prohibit a reopening of such a huge venue in Austin where downtown rents are skyrocketing. “I don’t think it would happen today, simply because of the rent. Cheap rent is what got the scene in Austin started,” wrote Wilson in the 2017 book The Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir he co-authored with Jesse Sublett.

The concert hall and beer garden at the old National Guard armory at the corner of South First Street and Barton Springs Road was also known for being tolerant toward marijuana and psychedelic drug use, which would not be tolerated these days. “I’m sorry there’s nothing in the book that’s television appropriate,” joked former owner Wilson during a recent interview on KXAN News.

Aging baby-boomers, particularly old hippies and nostalgic alumni from the University of Texas remember the legendary Dillo well. One ex-UT student, Bill Luttrell, said he bought the very last ticket to the final performance at the Dillo on December 31, 1980, which featured Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and the country music group Asleep at the Wheel. Bill still has that ticket (pictured here), autographed by Cody on the back. He said he got the autograph by tracking the singer to his hotel, then boldly asked Cody to autograph the last ticket. Bill said Cody “happily complied.”

Threadgill’s

Who would have ever thought that a nationally and internationally known white singer of the blues would have gotten her start in a gas station/beer joint that became a restaurant/bar?

“Threadgill’s was a converted gas station on the northernmost edge of Austin…the bar’s owner, Kenneth Threadgill, had been a bootlegger during Prohibition and is said to have acquired the first beer license in Travis County after its repeal. He was also a Jimmie Rodgers enthusiast whose jukebox was stocked with old 78s – every last one a Jimmie Rodgers record,” states the official Janis Joplin website. “Threadgill had purchased the gas station in the mid-thirties, and by the mid-forties he was selling soda pop and beer out of some old coolers while his friends played guitar and fiddle and sang hillbilly blues. By the mid-fifties a group of local amateur musicians were showing up every week to play, and Threadgill would pay them with two rounds of free beer. There was no stage at Threadgill’s. Instead, the performers played right in the middle of the customers.”

Nearby University of Texas at Austin was a hotbed of liberal thought and anti-war sentiment during the ’60s and ‘70s opposition movement to the Vietnam War. Singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins were adding their voices to the rising multitude of opponents to “LBJ’s War.” Many of the clientele coming to Threadgill’s were “folkies” (lovers of folk music) opposed to the war. It was an atmosphere heavily laden with anti-government and revolutionary feeling. The answers really were blowing in the wind during that period of sweeping social change in Texas and in the rest of the nation.

Every Wednesday was open mic night and would-be singers would bring their egos and ambitions to Threadgill’s to try and impress the audiences, composed mostly of UT students and others seeking new sounds. It was in the early 1960s that one such student and artist named Jack Jackson heard a new performer at the mic, who impressed him deeply. However, Jackson thought she was one of the weirdest students he had ever seen. “She was sad, dirty, and unwashed, with a bad complexion and matted hair. She looked as if she’d been wearing the same clothes for weeks, even sleeping in them. And she had these coonskin caps, ratty old things – God knows where she got them.” The gravelly voiced young lady said her name was Janis Joplin.

Once Janis became a regular at the Wednesday night open mics at Threadgill’s, the place started to pack in new music lovers who had heard about a “star” singing there with a band called the Waller Creek Boys. Janis met many new friends at the Threadgill’s nexus, including Mance Lipscomb, from Navasota. Mance later opened for Joplin at several performances in California, when Janis was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. But Janis had no bigger fan than the owner of the pub: Kenneth Threadgill, who was also a musician. Heavily influenced by the yodeling of country singer Jimmie Rodgers and the singing actor Al Jolson, Threadgill was such a good country singer that Texas Congressman J.J. Pickle dubbed him “the Father of Austin Country Music.” Threadgill even sang with Willie Nelson in the movie Honeysuckle Rose.

When Janis first sang at his pub, Kenneth was blown away. The two singers became instant best friends, a relationship that continued until Janis overdosed on heroin and died in a California hotel in 1970. Following her coming-out performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Janis Joplin had become a blues-inspired rock legend known internationally. She was called “the first real female rock superstar,” who went on to record four albums, the last of which (Pearl) was released posthumously in 1970.

Janis Joplin may have started small, but she rapidly grew into a musical legend. Her influence can still be felt in the blues, blues-rock and rock & roll. Take British singer Courtney Hadwin, who has appeared on the last two seasons of America’s Got Talent (AGT). The shy teenager literally turns into a version of Janis Joplin when she takes the stage. The attached video shows her rendition of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” Close your eyes and you might even think you are listening to Janis sing.

Threadgill & Joplin

kazoos

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.