The Weird World of One-String Blues

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 10.03.12 in Spotlights

I saw my first diddley bows in 1996, at the rural Delta home outside Lexington, Mississippi, of bluesman Lonnie Pitchford. Pitchford, who died two years later at the age of 43, took me around the side of his house and there, on the wall, was his “guitar,” consisting of one thin wire wrapped tautly around two nails pounded into the side of the wooden building, two to three feet apart. At either end he’d slipped something (I forget what) under the wire. He plucked it a few times running a quarter up and down the strings to create a slide effect, then led me back to his porch, where he had another one-string guitar built on a piece of wood. Again using a coin as the slide, he proceeded to pick out, if memory serves, Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” Pitchford, a protégé of Johnson’s son Robert Lockwood Jr., was known as the foremost Johnson interpreter in the Delta, and he gave this song a buzzing staccato hum that sounded like it must have involved more than one string. It was somewhat like the tone he gets on “Johnny Stole an Apple,” available here on eMusic. Lonnie had been playing diddley bow since the age of five; he’d first appeared at the Smithsonian Folk Festival when he was 17 and in concert, mostly at festivals, his act involved building a diddley bow onstage and then playing his set with it.

The diddley bow (also known sometimes as a jitterbug) is a one-string guitar once commonly played by Delta children; more formally, ethnomusicologists call it a “monochord zither.” Its origins are probably in central Africa, though West Coast African cultures also used one-string fiddles or lutes. The leaf stalk of the raffia palm was stretched over a hole in the ground, a tub or a pot; then, a sliver of its fiber was raised slightly on two bridges, but still attached to the stalk at both ends. One child would rhythmically tap this “string” with two sticks as a second slid a cup or something similar along it to alter the pitch and create percussive effects. As the instrument persevered among African Americans in the United States into the 20th century, it became a one-person instrument, usually made from broom or baling wire with bottles serving as bridges at either end. The child played with a stick or his finger, using another bottle or similar object as the slide. If the child played very well, he usually switched to the more complicated six-string guitar as he aged, often using a pocketknife instead of a glass bottle as his slide. The diddley bow thus had a significant effect on the shape and style of the blues; even when no slide is involved and the artist is playing a six-string guitar, the menacing one-string runs of John Lee Hooker (whose “Boogie Chillun” is performed by Pitchford here) or the dazzling one-string solos of B.B. King make that clear. Elmore James is just one major bluesman who professed to have first learned music on a diddley bow as a child.

But almost certainly because the diddley bow was a children’s instrument, the recording industry ignored it even in the 1930s, when folklorists first began noting its use in the South. Though nearly all diddley-bow recordings available on eMusic are by tradition-minded musicians prominent on the latter-day folk and festival circuits, there are exceptions. In 1956, one Willie Joe Duncan, listed as Willie Joe and His Unitar, accompanied Bob “Froggy” Landers on the Specialty single “Cherokee Dance.” The unitar, an electric one-string that judging from photos was about twice as big as Duncan, provided explosive, distorted contrast to Landers’s croaking voice on the dance novelty; the flip side, credited solely to Willie Joe and His Unitar, was a spare instrumental called “Unitar Rock” on which the ax sounded at times more like a Jew’s harp. (Duncan later re-cut a more ornate version of the song with guitarist Rene Hall’s Orchestra under the title “Twitchy.”) But alas, these attempts to make the unitar a “commercial” instrument fell on deaf (or weirded-out) ears. Also in 1956, Detroit street musician One-String Sam (Wilson) recorded “I Need a Hundred Dollars” and “My Baby Ooo” in a Hastings Street record store. Sam used a baby-food jar as his slide, holding it so close to his vocal mike that he created his own echo chamber, which made his sproinging (augmented by scraping) country blues sound even stranger.

More recently, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Compton Jones, Glen Faulkner, Napoleon Jones, Super Chikan, Watermelon Slim and others have recorded with diddley bow (while the Reverend KM Williams features the closely-related cigar-box guitar on his two eMusic albums). Hemphill, whose 1983 stroke ended her playing days, showcases the delicate picking of Jones on “Little Rooster Reel” and the sizzling stylings of Faulkner on “Get Right Church,” but no tracks of her playing a one-string are available here. Faulkner’s banjo-like “One-String Blues” appears on Africa and the Blues, as does Strickland’s droning “Key to the Blues (Jitterbug Version).” But the most hair-raising use of diddley bow in recent years is “Diddley-Bo Jam,” from Okiessippi Blues by Watermelon Slim and Super Chikan. For nearly eight minutes, the two men have it like a pair of fighting cocks, jabbing, dodging and twisting around each other, or one providing a steady backdrop as the other gets further and further gone. You gotta hear it.

And just because I know you’re wondering, Bo Diddley never recorded with a diddley bow. A notoriously wily interview subject, the late Ellas Otha Bates (aka Ellas McDaniel) gave several explanations for the origins of his stage name, and none of them mentioned the one-string guitar. But judging from the design of his own box-shaped guitar as well as his raucous, African-derived single-string excursions, I think it is safe to say that Bo Diddley definitely knew the diddley bow.