Author: Lange, David

Momma Don’t Allow….
I know of one talented washtub bass player that when attending festivals, would sneak up on a group that didn't have a bass, hide behind a car so as not to break up the jam, and play until they would notice and start asking. "Who's playing the bass?" Surprised faces would see a guy with a tub emerge from behind the car. Having let them hear before they saw, he earned acceptance and was welcomed into the jam. So there you have it. The prestigious life of a wondering washtub bass player……

So here’s my story……In 1985, while living and working in the south bay area, some new neighbors moved in from Ohia. (Spelled Ohio..). They moved from a “holler” to the middle of the concrete jungle. What’s a holler? Well, I understand it as a small community in a valley or canyon. At one time, short of a phone call…text messaging…or email…. the method of communication was to holler across the canyon. I think it might have gone kinda like this….HEY!!!…… WHAT?!!.......WANNA COME OVER FOR DINNER????..... SURE!!!!...... HEY GREAT!!...BRING DESSERT!!! AND YOUR GUITAR!!! Those were the days. Just don’t get laryngitis….

Anyway, nicest folks you’d ever want to meet. Often on Saturday night I would sit around with these new neighbors and listen to bluegrass music, the old country standards and tell stories. Then one Saturday afternoon I noticed the husband outside working on something. I stopped to see what he was doing. “I’m making a washtub bass” he said. I watched as he assembled it with intense focus and anticipation. I could sense that just the experience of putting it together was taking him back home again. When it was all finished, he positioned himself and began stroking the rope to bang out the first tune. He looked over at me and said “I can’t play this thing; you come here and give it a try”. Not having played anything before (other than the radio), I reluctantly took him up on his offer. Hey….Lets try it with some music Dave! They threw on a bluegrass tape (I think it was Jimmy Martin), turned it way up (that was a good idea...) and it took off from there. A new element was added to our Saturday night gatherings. They would play tape after tape and I would play my heart out on the bucket. I think they thought this was the best entertainment since the opery, and it was great practice for me!

I took the washtub bass to the 1985 Fall Strawberry Bluegrass Festival. My first “jamming” experience…. My memories of that first jamming festival were for one, I was probably one of the inspirations for establishing jam etiquette…….secondly, wear gloves if you are going to play (including fretting it) until five in the morning…. and third, someone needs to design a case for transporting this thing .....Oh, I also learned that if you are going to wonder into a camp of total strangers with a washtub bass and expect to be accepted, it’s best to be pretty good at playing it….

One of my fondest memories with the washtub bass was in the late 80’s. I had been attending a Saturday night jam at a pizza parlor in Martinez on a regular basis. One Saturday the owner decided to hire a popular band to perform, and asked the regular jammers to perform first. A reporter from the local paper came to interview all the musicians, including the jammers. When the reporter got around to me, he asked me questions about the construction of the bass, and my technique for playing it. Later, in the article, the reporter described all that I had told him, and said that I had explained everything as though I was talking about a “Stradivarius”, not a washtub bass!

At the same event, while we were warming up for the jammers performance, my string broke……I did not carry a spare, and when most musicians would be asking for the location of the nearest music store, I was frantically asking where the nearest Longs Drug or Rite Aid was! I need # 6 Nylon sash cord!!! One of the locals pointed me to a drug store a mile away, and off I went. My fingers were crossed. (Are they going to have #6 nylon rope?... I have never used anything else before…What if I have to use cotton…or fishing line!!!!). Well the store had just what I needed, and the show went on….. That store clerk must have wondered why a guy would be so desperate for a roll of nylon rope at 7 at night…He didn’t ask…I didn’t offer.

Folks take up the washtub bass for a variety of reasons. Some people do not play enough to make the investment in an upright. Others make one for the fun and the challenge! And some, just to keep an old tradition alive. For kids, creating improvisational instruments is a wonderful way to exercise their creativity, and can be a fun and inexpensive way to introduce them to playing music! I just carried it around to hear people that had never seen a washtub bass ask me “So how come you punched a hole in a perfectly good wash bucket?” “And that ain’t hardly enough line to hang any clothes on!”

I continued to play the washtub bass until about 1995 when I decided to see how much damage I could do with an upright bass. Some think that in the end, I got pretty good at the washtub, and I still get asked when I am going to get it out again. Others look at the planter my wife made out of that 30 gallon galvanized tub and say ”Now THERE’S a good use for that thing”. Yep, that hole in the bottom drains the water out just fine.

Till the next time……
Posted:  12/18/2007

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