Puttin’ The Beat In It

By Edward Tutwiler –
About two years ago, in (Issue 44) Americana Rhythm, we delved into the use or absence thereof of drum sets in the old-time and traditional bluegrass genres of Americana string music; and for that matter at that time, also in progressive and new-grass iterations as well. I even went so far as to observe that I had no desire to hear a drum line chasing through my Steep Canyon Ranger listening experience.
My-oh-my what a difference two years make. About a year ago, I went to a live performance by the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, WVA and discovered that this progressive bluegrass group had added a percussion type of instrument and a dedicated player thereof to their standard line-up. I caught them live again at Merlefest last spring—rhythm percussion is a permanent part of their act now.
The Rhythm Section
Last summer at an outdoor festival featuring some mainline bluegrass acts and an up and coming bluegrass gospel group named The Church Sisters. I had lunch between sets with their manager, and she posed this question to me, “What do you think about my girls adding percussion to the backup band?” Now, this is not an old-time or traditional act but they do sing gospel songs in a pure mountain manner abet with a fresh young sound and back up themselves with the expected instruments. Given my negative drum prejudice, I slowly responded with this, “Well, maybe a beat-box type of instrument but never a full drum set.” She replied that was her thought as well. I haven’t heard them live lately so I do not know if they’ve yet made the addition but I expect they will.
If you remember, most of the respected folks we consulted at the time of that first article, alluded there has always been a  presence of rhythm percussion in old-time and traditional music—just produced with obscure instruments such as metal spoons, fiddlesticks and some foot-clogging but done in a subtle manner. Last fall at the IBMA’s big bluegrass gathering in Raleigh, NC, one could hear infrequent sounds of rhythm percussion in some of the performances. Percussion is going to be more prevalent among the divergent young string music groups of that there is no doubt; and I expect it to take the form of simplistic rhythm percussion We’ll never hear (I certainly hope) a 10-minute long, frenzied drum solo like Gene Krupa’s big band renditions from the 1930’s, but percussion will emerge. Having said that, let us tell you about the most probable instruments to expect.
Beat Box Style
I mentioned the term beat-box a bit ago. That was a somewhat inaccurate response to the Church Sister’s manager. That term originated within the hip-hop music scene and actually defines a form of vocal percussion that primarily involved the performer using mouth, lips, tongue, and voice to produce drum beats, rhythm, and musical sounds. A more exact term for what is being used most frequently in string music is a box drum and a more precise term for that box drum is Cajón. This is a Spanish term best pronounced as Ka-hon and generally denotes a box, crate, or drawer. Commercial manufacturers produce fancy and elaborate versions of this instrument but many performers construct their own units from plywood using plans that they pass from artist to artist. The Cajón is of Peruvian origin (probably by way of West Africa via the slave trade) and is nominally a six-sided plywood box that is played by slapping the front or rear faces with the hands, fingers, or sometimes various implements such as brushes, mallets, or sticks. The sound produced is a very pronounced yet unobtrusive and somewhat hollow sounding rhythm that compliments well the string instrument sounds. The modern Cajón is often used to accompany an acoustic guitar, and is fast becoming popular in a broad range of musical genres.
The Cajón is often used instead of a full drum kit when a group or solo performer is performing in minimalist settings. As you might have surmised, this box drum type of rhythm percussion is rooted in African music; and since the early Appalachian music was an amalgamation of 18th. Century Scot-Irish and African-American musical traditions, it is easy to see how this latest trend toward simple rhythm percussion seems to now fit so well in the modern equivalent of that style of music—the old has once again become new.
Just Stomp It
Another rhythm percussion instrument that one sometimes hears with string music bands is a Stomp Box. A Stomp Box consists of a small wooden box placed under a musician’s foot. The performer taps or stamps on the box rhythmically to produce a sound similar to that of a bass drum. A Stomp Box allows a performer (such as a singer or guitar player) to create a simple rhythmic self-accompaniment. The most common use of these instruments is in folk and blues music but certainly not limited to that genre as you can hear them being used across the musical spectrum: A Stomp Box can be a pure acoustical instrument as a simple means to add a subtle hint of rhythm to a performance. In modern use, a microphone, or piezo transducer, is usually placed inside the box to send a signal to a small portable electronic amplifier. Commercially produced Stomp Boxes are readily available but performers often simply put a microphone inside whatever box they have handy.
A great listening example of Stomp Box playing is on some songs performed by The Steel Wheels, an eclectic hard to define folk/old-time acoustic string band with a national following. The Steel Wheels lead singer, Trent Wagler, also uses a unique rhythm percussion device that consists of a four-foot tall colorful wooden stick emblazoned with large metal washers and rattles that he shakes tambourine-style and sometimes uses with his Stomp Box when his group does their version of raw, powerful African-American spirituals. (As an aside, Pete Vigor, who heads an old-time string music group based in Central VA, mentioned a similar rhythm device festooned with soda bottle caps that was used by folk-singer Pete Seeger when he did African-American influenced spiritual songs.) Recently, I contacted Trent Wagler and asked him to give us the proper name of his instrument, and here is what he told me, “In Australia they call it a Lagerphone; and we’ve collected names for ours including The Gospelator and Jingling Jonny, but we just call it the Washer Stick.” (Editor note: for my part, considering how emotionally moving I find the Steel Wheel tunes to be when the sound of the Gospelator is added, I want to also give it a middle and a last name: Spirit and Stick—thus, The Gospelator Spirit Stick.)
Hambone It Up
When we speak of African-American influenced rhythm percussion in Appalachian influenced string music, we would certainly be amiss in not mentioning the Hambone. Now, less you think this is some obscure art form from the way-back, let me quickly dispel that notion. I saw an excellent presentation of Hambone in a full-on progressive bluegrass festival in Washington, DC just last month. It is not at all obscure. Hambone is another form of body music that adds percussion to string music performances. The performers use their hands to slap the thighs and the chest muscles of their body in a .rhythmic patting motion. Most sources place the origin of Hambone in West African dance and of course in the migration through the misery of slavery to the US south. No one really knows why the art form is called Hambone but it is easy to assume that the term was derived from the action from hitting your thigh—your actual hambone. Nevertheless, doing the Hambone is not an uncommon part of primarily the old-time and bluegrass genres of Americana string music performance.
We could go on sighting obscure and some not so obscure examples of rhythm percussion like the occasional snare drum/steel brush combination but suffice to say the use of rhythm percussion threads through and through Americana string music reaching far back before the time of recorded music. There is no doubt that rhythm percussion is here to stay because it was really never ever missing. I find my bias shrinking as some of my favorite groups incorporate some rhythmic percussion sound to enhance the richness of the sound produced by their talented string instrument players. However, having said this, I never ever want to hear Americana string music accompanied by a harsh, pounding,  overpowering array of drum paraphernalia, which is apparently required in the over amplified, electrified world of rock and modern country music.