I was sprawled on the living room floor the other night, flipping through an old National Geographic while singer Sarah McLachlan’s benignly soothing music played in the background.
Not my choice, but pretty good. Then my sweetheart Wylie grabbed another CD and popped it into the Bose music machine.
“I bet you’ve never heard these guys,” she said, flashing that big pretty smile of hers.
Rapid-fire and smoothly rhythmic acoustic guitar riffs filled the room without warning, supported by a thumping standup base and a scattershot shuffle of percussion. Before I could absorb this understated overdrive of something on the order of boogie-woogie, a man with a richly resonating voice joined in.
“Mamma don’t allow no music playing here at all,” he sings. After repeating this verse, the singer plunges forward chock full of attitude, assuring listeners, “we don’t care what Mamma don’t allow, we gonna play our music anyhow.”
Then came an instrumental that I knew had to come from a kazoo. But this cat laid down kazoo chops like I’ve never heard before.
The comparatively sedate, “Going to Chicago Blues” followed. This sound, however, was not quite the blues, and it was not exactly ragtime. But the music’s African American flavor was as immediately recognizable as that of either genre.
More precisely, the music of the The Original Washboard Band was distinctly Gullah Geechee, a pure product of the Georgia Sea Islands. Back in the 1950s, this rocking quartet played to adoring crowds at St. Simons Island nightclubs like the Oasis.
Nathan Jones was the band’s leader, laying down that unique percussion by strumming fingers tipped with sewing thimbles across a washboard. He also was one of two kazoo players in the band. Liner notes for their first album, Scrubbin’ and Pickin’, described his voice as “happily reminiscent of Louis Armstrong.” Then there was left-handed guitarist Smitty “Shorty” Feimster, the cut-up of the act who did not clown around when they needed a sweet tenor voice. Nathan’s son, Charles Ernest Jones, thumped the standup bass and could also be counted on to steal laughs on stage. And there was Robert “Washboard” Ivory, who orchestrated the band’s unique instrumental and vocal arrangements, and filled in on kazoo and guitar.
The Original Washboard Band’s music was intended purely for letting the good times roll. Folks came from all over to catch their act at the Oasis, one of several popular night spots along Frederica Road near its intersection with Demere Road during the 1950s. (This was long before the roundabout came about.)
Writer and islander Jingle Davis described them as “a wildly popular quartet of Gullah Geechee musicians” in her book, Island Time: An Illustrated History of St. Simons Island.
“A number of Atlanta people drove the three hundred miles to St. Simons on summer weekends just to go to The Oasis and hear The Washboard Band, which took its name from one of the instruments,” Jingle writes.
Washboards and thimbles were not the only misfit musical instruments employed on stage. Nathan could also coax some stylish percussion out of an old tin pan as well.
A set at the Oasis typically featured such upbeat tunes as “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well,” “Happy Days and Lonely Nights,” “Tiger Rag” and “White Silver Sands.” The music was infectious and professionally presented, but the guys also put on a show. Always a hit was “The Sheik of Araby,” with its laugh-out-loud refrain, “With no pants on.”
Writes Davis: “The refrain, rendered in falsetto by the guitarist Smitty “Shorty” Feimster, always brought the house down.”
They played gigs on Sea Island and at the Jekyll Island Club as well, gaining a following that included the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Rockefellers. They cut their only album, Scrubbin’ and Pickin’, in 1958. A year later, they earned a nationally televised spot on The Garry Moore Show, a popular weekly variety program at the time.
The national spotlight dimmed quickly. During the lean winter months, the quartet at times resorted to serenading St. Simons Islanders door-to-door for tips and change. “The tips they received helped them survive until bookings picked up the following summer,” Jingle writes.
Wylie’s copy of Scrubbin’ and Pickin’ was burned onto a blank cd from another source, long ago. It has received more playing time around the house since she first surprised me with it.
The music’s rich sound from such spare instrumentation speaks directly to the sheer joy these sons of the Sea Islands took in making their music. Like the Gullah Geechee ring shout tradition, it is a music whose soul stretches from Africa all the way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
Give them a listen for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqJgMfR_TdI.