Article MT098 - from Musical Traditions No 8, Early 1990 (slightly updated)

Joe Barrick's one-man band

a history of the piatarbajo and other one-man bands

Joe Barrick was born of Choctaw parents in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma in 1922.  His first musical instrument, at age fifteen, was the mandolin.  He recalls that he wanted something light that he could play as he walked down the road.  From a musician friend he learned his first three chords, but it wasn't long before three chords were not enough and he soon was teaching himself a more complicated style of mandolin playing and moving on to fiddle and guitar.  He walked and hitchhiked all over southeastern-Oklahoma to play for free at dances (or, rather, parties; dances were frowned upon).  He learned tunes from other musicians and off the radio.  Few books or records were available to him:

You'd hear a tune on the radio, then go off and learn it right quick.  Didn't have records.  Seemed like you learned quite a bit that way.  You remembered it!
One of Joe Barrick's earliest influences was the music of Bob Wills.  He greatly admired his fiddle playing and still plays a lot of tunes associated with him.

When he got out of the armed services, Joe settled in California and began playing in western bands, mostly on fiddle and mandolin.  It was during this thirty year period, before moving back to Oklahoma 15 years ago, that he began utilising skills gained in his regular employment as a carpenter, designing and building his own instruments.  One of his first used the skull of a cow as the body.

It was western music.  Everything was western ... and everything western you'd always see a cow's skull laying around.  I just got the idea of making one so it'd be western music.
The cow's skull guitar and mandolin, the Oklahoma guitar (with it's body shaped like the state of Oklahoma), and the toilet seat guitar ('Set on it!') were all made around this time when he began playing by himself.
I used to play these just for show.  That's when I started to want to play by myself.  It was hard to keep anybody together to play with anybody.
Thinking about how to play a back-up rhythm for himself (especially for his fiddle playing) without having to rely on less dependable musicians, led to ideas about how a rhythm guitar could be played without the hands but with the feet.  It began as an old board with a guitar neck and it had pedals on it.  He had pictured it long before he actually tried to build it - and when he did:
I surprised myself with how good it sounded.  It was just simple.  That's where I learned to play it ... on that one flat piece of board.  So it worked out good.  Then I made another one that had all this other stuff on it.  That's the way it worked out.  I wanted to see how it worked.
Joe Barrick's next version of the 'piatar', built about fifteen years ago, added bass guitar and banjo, and later a snare drum.  These sit in a shelf arrangement in a box structure at his feet.  They are played with his right foot on the downbeat as hammers strike the drum and the strings of the banjo, bass and guitar.  Treadles worked by the left foot operate moveable frets that push up on the strings and thus determine the chords that will be played.  This is the 'piatarbajo', its name derived from the instruments he used to invent it.  Along with the piatarbajo, he plays a double-necked guitar/mandolin that also has a cow's skull for its body.  To this he sometimes adds harmonica {held in a neck harness) and, occasionally, fiddle.  His arrangement is designed so that he can move smoothly from one instrument to the next - "to switch to it and keep goin' "

The fiddle isn't part of this apparatus yet - "I have to stop and pick it up.  I play the guitar and mandolin mostly, because it's built together."  However, the piatarbajo was built so that more could be added to it.  He has never gotten around to a final dressed-up version and has considered adding the fiddle to have it someplace where he can just reach for it.

Each instrument on the piatarbajo has its own pick-up mike and comes out of a separate speaker.  There is a regular bass amp for the bass part so that it sounds like a bass guitar.  There are separate amps for the guitar and banjo and they sound out on the downbeat with the snare drum, so that it all blends in together.  The bass is on one side and the other amps on the other side so that it will sound like individual musicians playing.

It's not all just one lump.  It don't come out like that.  It sounds like separate pieces.
This balancing of the individual instruments is of crucial importance and he takes great care in achieving that full, balanced sound.
You can tell when it comes out good.  Boy, you can hit it and it rings out!  Well, you know you got it.
Joe Barrick's repertoire draws on the music he has been listening to all his life, mostly country songs, lots of tunes associated with Bob Wills: San Antonio Rose, Spanish Two-step, Joe Turner Blues, Plover the Waves.  When asked to name some favourites he mentions Sally Goodin, Arkansas Traveller, Eighth of January, Mockingbird, The Waltz You Saved for Me, Missouri Waltz, Faded Love.
... a few Mexican tunes ... waltzes and schottisches, polkas, breakdowns ... boogies for the kids ... I just mix it up.  I just stick with the old ones.  There's enough of them to keep a guy busy.
He finds that these old tunes are still popular; that people still like to hear them.  Many of these he does not recall by name, only the tunes, and as he points out " ... you don't hear them anymore to know what the names might have been or where they came from." He frequently takes requests and even if he only remembers one verse, he'll play it and make a whole song out of it.  Very few new songs interest him - "All they have is some rhythm or beat.  That's about all.  They don't have a good melody."

He plays clubs much less frequently today than he once did and much more often for special community events, for openings, music festivals in southeastern Oklahoma, parties where he is invited to play, fundraisers, VFW get-togethers, events sponsored by Choctaw organisations (in 1977 he received an award of honor from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma "in recognition of outstanding work in designing musical instruments"), and even for hayrides "... when the weather is pretty."

Last fall he appeared at the 8th annual World Series of Fiddling in Langley, Oklahoma.  Many of these kind of events are outside where he is dependant on good weather for work, thus, he is less active with his music in the winter months.  He has also played for schools and nursing homes and it is always a special event for him when people want to get up and dance.

I play for some of these rest homes and the like to dance.  Some of the bands that come there, they didn't want them to dance, so they'd ask me if I'd mind if they'd dance "Well, that's what I want you to do!  I play better when you're dancing.  It's hard to play for someone that just sets there.
Music is a social event for Joe Barrick - "As long as I can make music and have a laugh, I'll happy."

This delight in performing music for people bringing them enjoyment has never left him from the days when he walked down the road with his first mandolin.  He had the feeling then there was more to music than three mandolin chords, and, although he has greatly expanded his array of instruments and is carrying around much more than a single mandolin, he has creative preserved his independence and self-determination.

No one tells me when to practice and I can play any song I want without having to hope the rest of the band likes it.
With a firm sense of the sound he is trying to achieve, a sound that rings out and brings joy to others, Joe Barrick sets music to the dance of life.  He is as modest about his remarkable accomplishment as he was determined to make it work.  He plays it all himself and the elusive tradition of the one-man band is a living and thriving one in the life and music of Joe Barrick.

One-Man Bands

The piatarbajo is one instrument that is not to be found in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments or in other standard reference works on the history of Musical instruments by Sibyl Marcuse, Curt Sachs, or James Blades.  It is the invention of Joe Barrick and is, in fact, not just one instrument, but several, combined in such a way that one musician can play them all at one time.  It turns Joe Barrick into a five piece band, providing all the rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment he needs for his lead guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, or vocal.  But, while this piatarbajo was built some fifteen years ago, the idea, as Joe Barrick expresses it, " ... To do it all!" 1 is one that has been around much longer and has provoked a wide range of responses and solutions.  Born of this impulse to play it all, alone, have been an extraordinary variety of musical instruments performed upon by an equally diverse, inventive and determined array of musicians.

The one-man band exists, in all its uniqueness and independence, as a most elusive yet persistent musical tradition.  As a category of musicianship it transcends cultural and geographic boundaries, spans stylistic limits, and defies conventional notions of technique and instrumentation.  Defined simply as a single musician playing more than one instrument at the same time, it is an ensemble limited only by the mechanical capabilities and imaginative inventiveness of its creator, and despite its generally accepted status as an isolated novelty, it is a phenomenon with some identifiable historical continuity.

Certainly one of the oldest combinations of two instruments played simultaneously is the pipe and tabor, to which the earliest references appear in the 13th century.  The pipe was a small end-blown three-hole flute held and fingered with the left hand.  Hanging from the left wrist or shoulder was a small snare drum beaten with a stick held in the right hand.  Additional sounds were possible when the drum was struck on the snare itself so that a continuous drone accompanied the regularly beaten rhythm or, as in one 15th century depiction, the player (in this instance, an angel) added wrist bells to the arm drumming the tabor.  Throughout Europe into the medieval period the pipe and tabor was a frequent source of music for itinerant performers accompanying jugglers, acrobats, popular folk dramas, and a wide variety of seasonal festivities.  The Elizabethan clown Richard Tarlton was pictured in a woodcut illustration in his Tarlton's Jests (1600) playing the pipe and tabor, and his contemporary William Kempe danced a Morris dance from London to accompanied by a taborer named Thomas Slye.  In rural England the pipe and tabor came to be called 'whittle and dubb' and into this century was the traditional musical entertainment accompanying the visits of masked Christmastide mummers.  It can still be heard in parts of rural France, among the Basques, in Catalonia and varieties of it have found their way into the native music of South America.

Another instrument of antique origins is best known in America as the 'stump fiddle'.  The stump fiddle illustrated (left) was built and performed upon by American vaudeville clown Benny Dougal in Chicago in the 1940s.  The more common variety had a single string which ran the length of the stick and stretched across a tambourine or box resonator, but here the string has been replaced with a washboard, a rhythm instrument of Afro-American origins with distinct roots in African rhythmic sensibilities.  The stump fiddle's English counterpart was the 'Devil's violin' and at the top of its pole sat a grotesque devil's head with two brass cymbals as its hat.  Benny Dougal's contraption retains this 'hat' and thus its identification as a fiddle - rather a stump fiddle, a crudely made, comical instrument played in burlesque manner like the verbose nonsense of the endman's stump speech of blackface minstrelsy.

Clown Joe Grimaldi's version or the stump fiddle, created for his drama Mother Goose (1805), consisted of a fish kettle fixed to an upright broom.  He played the kettle with a ladle and a whisk as his mouth rested level with the bristles.

A simpler version of this instrument exists as a stick zither, a single string attached a each end of a long stick stretched across a pig's bladder at the lower end.  In this form it was found all over Europe, called variously 'drones' or 'bladder and string' in Britain, 'bumbass' in Germany, 'basse de Flandre' in France.  Its age is indeterminate but it is referred to in Nordic sagas and 11th century Icelandic texts.  The string was most often scraped rather than bowed with a notched stick so as to give it a sound not unlike a drum roll.  With assorted noise-maker attached and stamped on the ground as it was bowed it functioned as something of a rhythm section in bands at carnival time in Russia, Germany and Poland and was manufactured commercially in Germany in the 1890s for that purpose .  Very early in its history, however, it became identified as the instrument of wandering minstrels (as in Hogarth's 'The Beggar's Opera') and one-man bands.

The addition of those various noise-makers suggests a kinship with the Turkish crescent, a percussion stick of more ornamental design and more formal function in military bands, but the absurdly, noisily bedecked 19th century bumbass broadly parodied the Turkish crescent's position leading marching bands in the late 18th century when Turkish 'Janissary' music spread throughout Europe.  It was called the 'Jingling Johnny' in England, also the 'lagerphone' or 'boom stick' when it was regarded as a less complex rhythm instrument.  (A watercolour by George Scharf from London in the 1820s depicts a one-man band wearing the top of a Jingling Johnny including the little crescent moon, on his hat; he plays panpipes fastened around his neck and beats a bass drum and tambourine slung over his shoulders).  The addition of horns, cowbell jingles and assorted drums to the American stump fiddle reveal the influence of that Afro-American, attentiveness to the musical possibilities of everyday objects and an affection for untempered but carefully selected sounds.

A commercial version of the instrument is manufactured today by the Sheboygan Fiddle Factory of Wisconsin.  Their Stump Fiddle uses a large spring stretched the length of the stick over pie plates filled with BB's at the lower end.  Played with a drum stick, the sound is not unlike the old German bumbass and an array of bicycle horns and bells, wood blocks and sleigh bells add wider variety of percussive effects.  In addition to marketing the instrument all over the world, the company also sponsors a Stump Fiddle contest at Sheboygan's annual Bratwurst Day Festival.

Along with his stump fiddle Benny Dougal added to his one-man ensemble a foot-pedal operated pair of cymbals, a mechanical device percussion historian James Blades has suggested may have had its inspiration in the one-man band's use of a drum or cymbal operated by a cord attached to the performer's foot.  While the foot pedal bass drum and cymbal became a significant addition to the American trap-drummer's kit in the early part of this century, it also played an exceptional role in the expanding capabilities of the one-man band.

Another mechanical innovation of equal significance is the harmonica rack, a structure that allows ready access to harmonica or kazoo, leaving the hands free for guitar or fiddle.  The guitar and harmonica is perhaps the most common of all one-man band combinations and is often not even described as a one-man band.  In early American country music in the 1920s George Reneau, Ernest Thompson, Walter Peterson, Henry Whitter and Charlie Oaks have all been identified as one-man bands.  Singer Tex Williams began his musical career playing as a one-man band of banjo and harmonica.  Although the harmonica rack was available through the Sears and Rosbuck catalogue at the turn of the century, for many of these musicians this rack was not a store-bought device but something they rigged up on their own - blues player Jimmy Reed, although he never identified himself as a one-man band made his own harmonica rack from coathanger wire in 1949 never having seen one before.  Medicine show performer Gus Cannon played banjo and jug, actually a paraffin can, which was fixed to a similar harness with a kazoo mounted onto the handle of the can.  Another songster out of the medicine show circuits any 'Ragtime' Thomas played guitar with a set of quills (or panpipes) mounted in a neck harness.

Blues street performer Sam Jones, better known as 'Stovepipe No 1', used the harmonica rack to free his hands to hold and play a piece of stove-pipe blown in jug fashion when he wasn't playing guitar.  Fiddle player M M Ware appeared at fiddling contests in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913 accompanying himself on mouth harp and George Daniel (whose 1925 string band, the Hillbillies did much to popularise the term 'hillbilly') performed his turn as a one-man band with harmonica and autoharp.  Harmonica Frank Floyd, who had a long career playing in medicine shows, also played guitar and harmonica but never felt comfortable with the harness.  Instead he perfected (over a five year period) a technique of manipulating the harmonica with his mouth while he sang out of the other side.  He could also play harmonica with his nose and thus play two harmonicas at once, a skill he shared with blues harp players Walter Horton and Gus Cannon's partner Noah Lewis.

For many black musicians percussion was an important addition to the one-man band of harmonica and guitar.  Daddy Stovepipe (Johnny Watson), a long-familiar figure on Chicago's Maxwell Street, regarded his foot stomping as a third instrument.  Others like Joe Hill Louis, Elmon Mickle (Driftin' Slim), Dr Issiah Ross, and Jesse Fuller used a foot pedal to play bass drum or cymbal, or both as in the case of Blind Joe Hill who plays drums with his left foot and a sock cymbal with a tambourine draped over it with his right.  There were a few white performers who added percussion instruments to their one-man bands - most often it was by the addition of bells or triangle.  Jim Garner, who appeared at the same 1913 Atlanta fiddler's convention as M M Ware, played guitar with his hands and triangle with his feet.  Will Blankenship of the Blankenship Family of North Carolina in the 1930s did solo numbers playing harmonica, autoharp and triangle.  Self-taught sculptor Fred Smith who in the 1950s and early '60s filled his property in northern Wisconsin with hundreds of concrete and glass statues, entertained in lumber camps in his youth playing the fiddle with sleigh bells tied to his ankle and a large brass bell tied to his knee which he hit with the end of his bow.

These musicians represent only a few of the possibilities of one-man musical performance and it was in vaudeville and the music hall, a setting that encouraged the unique and unforgettable performer, that the one-man band flowered in its wildest varieties.  Ragtime composer Wilbur Sweatman in the early 1900s did a vaudeville act playing three clarinets at once and Vick Hyde, a vaudevillian of the 1940s did his finale playing three trumpets at the same time and twirling a baton as he exited the stage.  Virtuoso Violinsky concluded his act with a piano-cello duet by fastening a bow to his right knee while his right hand fingered the strings, leaving his left hand to accompany himself on the piano.  The piano, generally thought to be a two-handed instrument was played with only the right hand by Paul Seminole in the 1920s while he played guitar with his left, and for jazz musician and comedian Slim Gaillard playing the piano and guitar at the same time was possible by turning up the volume on his electric guitar " ... it'll play itself - you just make the chords and hit the strings, feedback!" 2

A piano-playing device was invented and patented by George Cook of Ogden, Utah in the 1920s and advertised as enabling cornet or violin players to accompany themselves.  The ad read:

As he works the pedals, arms come down and strike the keys of the piano.  The photograph above shows Cook playing the 'um-pahs' with his pedal attachment while he carries the air on his fiddle. 3
Inventiveness of a different sort is exemplified in the playing of John Blackman who sang and played kazoo accompanied by a homemade percussion kit.  His repertoire of blues and standards was recorded by Folkways Records in the 1950s after being discovered playing on the ferries connecting Manhattan and New Jersey.  He was born in Louisiana but beyond that nothing is known of him before or after that recording was made.  His drum was a five gallon oil can (one end was punched with nails to create a snare drum effect) to which he attached cowbells, doorbells, pineapple can tops, woodblocks, and a cymbal.  It all packed neatly into one cardboard box, perfectly suited to a life on the road.

Undoubtedly the most well known and well-recorded one-man band was that of Jesse Fuller whose invention of the foot-operated bass greatly expanded the sound of his music.  Born in 1896 in Jonesboro, Georgia, Fuller did not start playing music professionally until the early 1950s, but his career as an inventor and builder of musical instruments began at age nine when he constructed and played a mouth bow:

I made a bow like the Indians used to use and put some wax on the string: I put the bow in my mouth and pick the string and it sound like a jewels harp ... I don't know how the idea ever came into my head. 4
He spent the first half century of his life as an itinerant worker, finding jobs in a broom factory, a barrel factory, in rock quarries, in circuses and on railroads.  By the 1920s he had settled in California where he carved wooden snakes to sell on street corners, acted as an extra in Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 The Thief of Baghdad, and during World War II, worked as a welder in the shipyards.  He had learned to 'flail gut-tar' at an early age, played a homemade guitar, and sung his own songs throughout his years of hoboing and so, well-settled in Oakland, California when the shipyards closed after the war, he decided to try to make a living playing music.  It was at this time that he designed and built his foot-operated bass, the 'footdella' (a combination of the words foot and Killer Diller), an upright string bass with six piano strings hit with individual hammers attached to six pedals that he played with the big toe of his right foot.  Because it was limited to only six bass notes, he occasionally played tunes without the footdella.  The sock cymbal he played with his left foot was also his own construction (except for the topmost cymbal), as was his neck harness (which held harmonica, kazoo and a microphone plugged into the amplifier of his twelve-string guitar), and the stool he sat on to play.  With his vast repertoire of blues, spirituals, rags, and pop tunes, the folk festival and nightclub scene of the 1960s folk music revival provided Fuller with enough work that he was able to live off his music.  He recorded several record albums, played festivals throughout the US and Europe, and his San Francisco Bay Blues became a familiar folk standard.  His is probably the only one-man band so fully recorded and the high-spirited, smooth, and well-integrated playing of his various instruments make his accomplishment well worth that attention and praise.

Like the Musiker in Frank Baum's The Road to Oz (1909) , whose lungs are full of reeds and who only has to breath to squeeze out his music - "That bass note is in my left ear" - the key to an elaborate one-man band is having everything at hand.  In other words, the development of greater instrumental complexity is the result of elaborate individual invention.  Such an inventor was Fate Norris.  He is best known for playing banjo in the hillbilly string band The Skillet Lickers, although he was poorly recorded and can hardly be heard in any of their many recordings.  Fate Norris was born somewhere in northern Georgia probably sometime in the 1890s and was with the Skillet Lickers throughout their recording career from 1924 until 1931.  Although little is known of him before or after this except that he played at those early Atlanta fiddlers' conventions, he apparently had experience in the medicine show circuit and had a flare for comedy that included a 'talking doll' and an elaborate one-man band of six instruments which he took to fairs and fiddlers' contests throughout the south.  When the Skillet Lickers appeared in Nashville in 1927, it was reported:

Fate Norris, of Dalton, Georgia, the one-man wonder, who plays six individual instrument in an individual band, will also furnish entertainment.  Mr Norris has in his band two guitars, bells, bass fiddle, fiddle, and mouth harp.  He devoted seventeen years to mastery of his art. 5
Fiddler Bill Helms recalled seeing Norris at a fiddler's convention in Chattanooga:
Fate Norris was there too, had a musical soapbox - made out of soap boxes with a pocket knife, and strings from mandolins, guitars, fiddles, autoharps.  Had pedals and knee pads.  Played two instruments with his feet; played a mouth harp. 6
There are no recordings of Fate Norris' one-man band, only these descriptions and a few photographs, one of which shows him sitting before his contraption, fiddle in hand, on a sidewalk in front of a hand-written sign reading: 'A real string band played by one man will start at 12 pm'. 7  The photograph reproduced here provides a better view of Norris' invention, its unusual arrangement of guitars, a large cogwheel, and the three pedals for his left foot and one for his right.  He's added kazoo to his fiddling and looks as if it is one minute past noon and he is about to launch into his first number.

Another newspaper article about Norris' appearance in Nashville adds: 'It required fifteen years, Mr Norris says, for him to perfect his performance'. 8

What took place over those fifteen years?  How did such a one-man band develop?  No such information about Fate Norris' invention is available, but there is a description preserved about another one-man band of similar complexity and construction that was heard and seen almost one hundred years earlier in London.  Henry Mayhew's survey of London street life in the 1840s and '50s London Labor and the London Poor (A Cyclopedia of the Condition and Earninqs of Those that Will Work, Those that Cannot Work, and Those that will not Work) 9 includes this testimony from a street musician known only as 'blind performer on the bells':

A hale looking blind man, with a cheerful look, poorly but not squalidly dressed, gave me the subjoined narrative.  He was led by a strong, healthy-loolking lad of 15, his stepson:

"I have been blind since within a month of my birth," he said, "and have been 23 years a street performer.  My parents were poor, but they managed to have me taught music.  I am 55 years old.  I was one of a street-band in my youth, and could make my 0.5s a week at it.  I didn't like the band, for if you are steady yourself you can't get others to be steady, and so no good can be done.  I next started a piano in the streets, that was 23 years ago.  I bought a chaise big enough for an invalid, and having had the body removed, my piano was fitted on the springs and the axle-tree.  I carried a seat, and could play the instrument either siting or standing, and so I travelled through London with it.  It did pretty well; in the summer I took never less than 20s., and I have taken 40s on rare occasions, in a week, but the small takings in the winter would reduce my yearly average to 15s a-week at the utmost.  I played the piano, more or less, until within these three or four years.  I started the bells that I play now, as near as I can recollect, some 18 years ago.  When I first played them, I had my 14 bells arranged on a rail, and tapped them with my two leather hammers held in my hands in the usual way.  I thought next I could introduce some novelty into the performance.  The novelty I speak of was to play the violin with the bells.  I had hammers fixed on a rail, so as each bell had its particular hammer; these hammers were connected with cords to a pedal acting with a spring to bring itself up, and so, by playing the pedal with my feet, I had full command of the bells, and made them accompany the violin, so that I could give any tune almost with the power of a band.  It was always my delight in my leisure moments, and is a good deal so still, to study improvements such as I have described.  The bells and violin together brought me in about the same as the piano.  I played the violoncello with my feet also, on a plan of my own, and the violin in my hand.  I had the violoncello on a frame on the ground so arranged that I could move the bow with my foot in harmony with the violin in my hand.  The last thing I have introduced is the playing four accordions with my feet.  The accordions are fixed in a frame, and I make them accompany the violin.  Of all my plans, the piano, and the bells and violin, did the best, and are the best still for a standard.  I can only average 12s a-week take the year through, which is very little for two."

Except for this statement, no other personally related account of the gradual development of a one-man band exists.  In the careful addition of each instrument and the technique and mechanical means to play it, there is a unique sort of virtuosity, a triumph of imagination and invention over physical limitation, not the least being his blindness since one month of birth.  Such inspired resilience is not uncommon among one-man bands and recalls this itinerant musician seen around Harlan County, Kentucky in the early part of this century:

Back before I can remember a travelling minstrel by the name of Charlie Page or Paige came through the mountains putting on little shows with puppets at the local schoolhouses.  He was a one-armed man, his arm being off right up to his shoulder, but he played a fiddle, blew a mouth harp and rang a bell all at the same time.  My father said he held the bow between his legs, and had a harp holder around his neck and tapped the bell on the floor with his foot - and he said he was a fairly good fiddler. 10

Knowledge of the existence of the one-man bands of Fate Norris and Charlie Page would be lost without the preservation of a couple photographs and the few recorded recollections of people who saw them.  Such testimony well illustrates the obscurity of this tradition and it can only be guessed at the number of one-man bands who have vanished into the past without a trace.  In the 1920s 'Stovepipe No 1' was a familiar sight on the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio, playing harp, guitar, and stovepipe and references to Cincinnati street life in his recorded songs (recorded not as a one-man band but with other musicians such as vocalist David Crockett and King David's Jug Band) demonstrate his closeness with Cincinnati's active and highly competitive blues scene.  However, Stovepipe No 1 was not alone in his employment of harp and guitar and Cincinnati blues pianist Pigmeat Jarrett recalled another performer active at the time:

Baby Ruth, a one-man band, he could beat Stovepipe.  The best harp player around; he went to Florida. 11
This brief but tantalising recollection alongside the recollections of Charlie Page, Fate Norris, and 'blind performer on the bells' exhibit the elusiveness of this tradition.  This history has many such great gaps and sudden flashes of detail and demonstrates how incomplete and arbitrary the historical record can be in discussing almost any musical tradition.

Mayhew's 'blind performer on the bells' was 55 years old when he related his story to Mayhew.  He had been playing on the streets most of his life, for the previous 23 years alone ... "I didn't like the band, for if you are steady yourself you can't get others to be steady, and so no good can be done."

Bluesman Dr Isaiah Ross experienced similar frustrations that sent him off in the direction of organising himself into an entire band:

After a while, the fellows in the band would always want to go on their own, so I'd have to go looking for new guys to take their places, and then break them in.  I just got tired of doing it, so I learned to play the guitar and then the drums so that I wouldn't have to depend on anybody else.  I could make all the music I wanted, the way I wanted, by myself. 12
Jesse Fuller (whose calling card read 'Lone Cat') found other musicians to be " ... all too busy - running around, drinking, and gambling" 13, and these sentiments were echoed by Daddy Stovepipe, affirming the independence of his enterprise:
You can figger it out: I'm ninety years old now, so I don't know exactly when I was born at but you can figger it.  I been playin' on Maxwell for about ten years off an' on, I reckon.  Playin' by myself.  I'm a what they call a one-man band.  Don't need no other fellers 'cause I play my own guitar and I got this harp on this rack round my neck so's I cin play it and I stomp with my foot.  So I jest set my box on the corner of Maxwell and Peoria and I'm a whole band. 14
Practical considerations such as these are the most often expressed motivations of one-man band performers, but if everyone who experienced such frustrations felt moved to create a one-man band there would be far more in number.  There is something deeper at work in this extraordinary impulse to play it all, alone, at one time, with all the requisite physical agility, and to play it so joyfully.  There is a radical independence at work here, an urge to confront and explore human capabilities and possibilities, an urge to realise a unique and playful thought.  In other words, even if the musical results may have at times been crude and musically not very interesting, what is significant is that the attempt was made, that the idea was considered and acted upon, often with a lifetime of dedication.

The range of this tradition is remarkable.  It appears in the play of children, in the making of toy musical instruments, as in the case of blues singer and guitarist Lee Jackson whose first instrument as a child growing up in Arkansas in the 1920s was a piece of bailing wire strung on the side of his uncle's house - a not unusual first instrument of black children in the southern United States.  A snuff bottle was worked in under the string at one end and it was played with another snuff bottle as a slide to create, in the words of Lee Jackson, those "Hawaiian sounds".  In order to accompany this one-string guitar, Jackson nailed a baking powder can to the wall ...

And you bend it a little and you put a harmonica in it and then tighten it back up and it holds the harp like that, and put your mouth up there, and play ... 15
The unusual appearance of the one-man band made it perfectly suited to comedy and with little exaggeration it could be turned into an act of hilarious musical satire in circus clown bands or a sure thing for a 'boff mit' in vaudeville and music hall reviews.  In settings where great value is placed on the unique and colorful, the eye-catching spectacle, the one-man band has gathered crowds and loose change on street corners and sidewalks across the world.

With diligent practice it was possible for one musician to create the sound of several and play rhythm, lead, and accompaniment perfectly in keeping with the styles and arrangements or blues, country, folk, and popular music.  More than that, conventional forms could be stretched and the furthest explorations of the musical adventure conducted with all the dedication and accomplishment of 'serious' musical innovation.  One of the most inspired one-man bands of our time must be that of Jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk who sought to recreate a sound he first heard in a dream.  He hung around his neck an array of flutes, whistles, bird calls, bells, castanets and hand drums.  At his feet sat a bass drum, sock cymbal, gong and an assortment of horns.  He could play three saxophones at once and on a solo medley such as Going Home he played Les Brown's Sentimental Journey on the mazello horn and a theme from Dvorak's New World Symphony on the tenor saxophone.  As he improvised on one theme on one horn, he played an accompanying line on the other horn, and played rhythm with the sock cymbal at his feet.

Improvisation and innovation in this multiple instruments/single performer tradition continues today in the music of Jerome Cooper.  A long dedicated percussionist in free jazz circles in the 1960s and '70s and a student of music from a wide variety of world musical traditions, he has pursued the possibilities of solo improvisation with the simultaneous playing of bass drum, sock cymbal, balafon marimba, and the South American multiple reed instrument, the chiramia, making this one-man band the focus of a wider variety of world music than ever before possible.

The link uniting these diverse ensembles can be found in their close relationship to the beginnings of all music-making, to the playfulness that inspires all of the earliest of musical experiences, of imagining and inventing and of realising what was once only imagined.


  1. Quotations from Joe Barrick are drawn from interviews conducted by the author in December 1986 and February 1987.
  2. Steve Voce 'Slim Gaillard', Jazz Journal, No. 35 (October 1982), p. 20.
  3. This ad was reprinted in Old Time Music No 29 (Summer 1978X, p 25.
  4. C H Garrigues, 'Jesse Fuller', liner notes to Jesse Fuller, 'The Lone Cat' (Good Time Jazz M-12039).
  5. Reprinted in Charles K Wolfe, When the Skillet-Lickers Came to Nashville, The Grand Ole Opry, (Old Time Music, Booklet 2, London, 1975), p. 102.
  6. 'Interview with Bill Helms', JEMF Quarterly, Vol. 2, Part 3, (June 1967), p. 57.
  7. This photograph was reprinted in Norm Cohen's 'Riley Puckett: King of the Hillbillies', JEMF Quarterly, Vol. 12 (winter 1976), p. 180.
  8. Wolfe, p. 103.
  9. Henry Mayhew, London Labor and the London Poor, (Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1968), Vol. 3, p. 161. Reprint of 1861-62 edition published by Griffin, Bohn and Company.
  10. Edward Ward, Music in Harlan County, Kentucky, JEMF Quarterly, Vol. 15 (Spring 1979), p.21.
  11. Steve Tracy, 'Going to Cincinnati', Living Blues, No. 38 (May - June 1978), p.24.
  12. Pete Welding, liner notes to Dr Ross: One Man Band, (Takoma TAR 7087).
  13. Garrigues.
  14. Paul Oliver, Conversation with the Blues, (Horizon Press, New York, 1965), p 143
  15. Justin O'Brien, 'Lee Jackson: All Around Man', Living Blues No. 33 (July - August 1977), p 26

Note: I would appreciate hearing from anyone with further information (photos, descriptions, recollections, etc.) on one-man bands. This article in an initial attempt to document the history of this phenomenon. I hope in the future to expand it into a much fuller study. My address is 1622 West Sherwin, Apt. 2S, Chicago, Illinois 60S26, U.S.A.

Hal Rammel - 1990

Article MT098

Top of page Articles Home Page Reviews News Editorial Map