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A Musical History Lesson

Enjoy a tour through the notes and melodies of early 20th century music with Martyn Roper of The Washboard Resonators.

Mixing vintage inspired music with vintage inspired clothing.

When Sophie asked my band, The Washboard Resonators to do a photo shoot with Stanley Biggs Clothiers it seemed like a perfect fit.

We produce original music but in a way that is inspired by that classic pre 1950s era. Blues, Ragtime, Swing, Jazz, Cabaret, Folk, Country and Skiffle all combine to make something unique that a small but dedicated group of people want.

In many ways Stanley Biggs Clothiers produce clothing in a similar way. They’re vintage in style but completely made for today’s times with a small but keen clientele wanting something that isn’t mass market and that has a certain quality.

We’ve found that playing 1920s & 30s inspired music is one thing, but by bringing it ‘to life’ through carefully chosen outfits and throwback tropes from the days of Cabaret we create an immersive experience with our audience.

Having a Baker Boy style hat that looks like the one Blind Boy Fuller is seen wearing in his 1934 portrait or the spats that Fred Astaire can be seen wearing in the cinema classic ‘Top Hat’ all transports us and our audience to a ‘post modern’ alternative universe. We’ve all heard of ‘Steam Punk’ but this is more ‘Diesel Punk.’

In this article we’ll talk about the history of this era of music, our influences and we’ll mix in recommended listening for which there will be a special playlist at the bottom.

Influenced by the olden days

The FAQ we get most often is, “How do such young men get into old fashioned playing music?”

Myself (Martyn, 42) arrived at many 1920s & 30s blues musicians as a teenager through my love of (and the playing of) blues derived rock music like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cream and Led Zeppelin. 

There are only so many times you could read interviews by your heroes before the likes of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell would be mentioned. In time you’d go to Huddersfield second hand market and buy a CD with these performers to see what all the fuss was about. Soon you’d find yourself listening to these long dead musicians more and more and enjoying the discovery of similar artists.

Similarly, Jack (32) was playing drums in his school’s big band, so the swing and jazz era of the 1930s became important. Especially the big band music around influential drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich leading to a burgeoning interest in Jazz and later Skiffle, Blues and more.

A Musical History Lesson

So dear reader now seems like an appropriate time to introduce you to a guide of notable ‘vintage’ musicians (link to a playlist of tracks of both bygone era tracks plus a smattering of current artists that bring it to life at the end).

So, let’s take that name Robert Johnson. If you’re ever looking for a key component of blues and 1930s music (or even rock music) you have to stop here. 

There is a nonsensical myth that Johnson sold his soul to the devil, but the truth is he was a hard working and talented professional musician that despite selling few records in his lifetime, continues to inspire musicians. His songs have become standards in the blues genre and now he remains one of the greatest traditional blues artists. He is often the first stop for people going on a historical blues pilgrimage.

His 1936 Recording ’Sweet Home Chicago’ and its strutting ‘shuffle’ guitar rhythm is a sound you’ve heard on a million rock records. Although complex I believe it’s safe to say that he invented it by modifying a traditional piano rhythm for his guitar. 

Like all good archetypal rambling blues musicians, he was dead at age 27 (1938), poisoned by a jealous bar owner because his wife was having an affair with him.

Other notable blues musicians you may like to try who could be the acoustic ‘delta blues’ guitar player, Charley Patton and a good place to start is his song ‘Down The Dirt Road Blues’ (1929).

Another is Memphis Minnie; a part time prostitute and part time blues guitar goddess. With her gold teeth and ability to out-play most, she and her husband Kansas Joe recorded great duets that are definitive of blues throughout her career in the 1920s through to the 1950s.

Her song ‘Me and My Chauffeur’ from 1941 is a double entendre laden song about being ‘ridden around town’ that captures her vocal and hooky guitar prowess beautifully. Led Zeppelin’s, ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is a reworking of one of her songs just to give a sense of her huge influence.

For more ‘down-home’ Mississippi Delta style acoustic blues also try Eddie ‘Son House’ with ‘Walking Blues’ originally recorded in 1930 or go one better and give the 1942 version a listen which was recorded in a grocery store, alongside a railroad line with a few mates playing along with his loud resonator guitar. 

The whistling steam train that was captured coming past them near the beginning of the recording, along with the rolling music will give you an almost ghostly glimpse back into a warm Mississippi day in 1942.

Blues moved north to the US cities as African Americans moved north and as electric instruments became the norm it mixed traditional blues and jazz elements to become harder and louder and became known as ‘Chicago Blues’ or ‘Jump Blues.’ 

Elmore James is a great example of Chicago blues and his cover of a Robert Johnson song, ‘Dust My Broom’ recorded in 1951 will easily show the bridge between pre WW2 acoustic blues and what would be termed ‘Rock & Roll’ just a few years later.

For Jump Blues you’ll find that T-Bone Walker takes some beating. Do check his 1947 song ‘Stormy Monday Blues,’ for a lesson in smooth tasteful singing and tasty jazz influenced blues guitar playing.

We mentioned jazz. Let’s lift the lid on this often misunderstood genre

The word “jazz” has seedy origins going back to the 1860s.

Technically though you can start with ’The Original Dixieland Jass Band’ and their first recording in 1917. This band had the first commercial release using the word Jass (later ‘Jazz’) in their title.

The ODJB version of ‘Tiger Rag’ is an incredibly complex arrangement to showcase the power of those seven great musicians and our duo version is one of our most requested songs.

Most laypeople think of jazz as tuneless incoherent noise because later freer versions of the form perpetuate in popular culture. However, they may not realise that something as commercial as Glenn Miller and his era defining 1944 song ‘In the Mood’ is actually part of the jazz family. It’s a jolly fun listen and possibly the most obvious example that will instantly transport you back to that 1940s era.

The one jazz artist that defined the genre of jazz is Louis Armstrong. Don’t be put off if all you know are his later syrupy (but beautiful) commercial pop recordings of the 1960s. Through the 1920s and 30s he was a true trailblazer and innovator. His 1926 song ‘Heebie Jeebies’ recorded with his ‘Hot Five’ band will astound you with the syncopated and endlessly inventive phrasing (which to me is truly what jazz should be about).

There are other branches of Jazz and Blues like; ‘Hokum’ and ‘Ragtime’ which influence our band greatly. 

Hokum was the name given to a huge craze for risqué songs in the blues and jazz idiom. In the UK our biggest exponent was the ukulele master George Formby (‘Cleaning Windows’ from 1936 is his defining song) but my personal favourite performer of this style is the Chicagoan guitarist ‘Tampa Red.’

Red recorded ‘It’s Tight Like That’ in 1928 and it ended up selling a reported 7,000,000 copies which inspired more artists to jump on the Hokum bandwagon.

His use of a resonator guitar (more later) and a glass ‘bottleneck’ guitar slide is directly an influence. Indeed, we play this song in our current set.

Ragtime was originally piano based pop music of the 1890s but its style and form lived on when mixed with blues guitarists like Blind Boy Fuller. 

Fuller’s 1935 song ‘Rag Mama Rag’ uses classic ragtime chord progressions and the guitar is treated like a piano, fingerpicking separate bass lines, chords and top-line embellishments. 

It’s another song we play and as well as him influencing the use of a resonator guitar (again) and washboard, his 1934 photo wearing a suit with resonator guitar and baker boy hat has been a style inspiration for decades.

We’ll conclude the ‘vintage’ music section by looking at early country music now and then we’ll look at a few newer recommended artists that bring to life older styles.

The original term for ‘Country Music’ was a derogatory term known as ‘Hillbilly Music’ and the true ‘ground zero’ artistically are The Carter Family. They started a musical dynasty in the 1920s that through daughter June’s marriage to Johnny Cash in the 1960s continues to this day.

‘Mother’ Maybelle Carter played a unique thumb picking guitar style that had her picking the melody with her thumb on the low strings while rhythmically strumming chord notes with her fingers (AKA the ’Carter Scratch’). Her guitar drove the band, whilst the close harmonies (that only a family could produce) created a beautiful haunting sound.

Check the playlist for their 1927 hit ‘Bury Me Beneath the Willow’ for an entry into their style of ballad singing that both echo 17th to 19th century British folk music, but also point towards more modern pop song writing and the later ‘Americanna.’ Again, this is another song in our current set although we use a banjo.

Check out Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams too.

Current Artists That Will Take You Back

Just as Stanley Biggs produces clothing for now but influenced by the past, some artists do the same.

We both would say that Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton is the best at opening up a window to the olden days. A virtuoso musician on guitar, piano, banjo, violin and harmonica he will astound all with his alacrity as much as his wit.

CW Stoneking is an Australian that somehow invokes a reimagined 1930s America in a way that also feels almost punk at times. ‘Jungle Blues’ from 2009 is a great way in.

Tom Waits uses lots of genres to produce his own mongrel mix of music that sounds old yet new. The way he uses the Victorian style of marching brass bands to produce his 1983 dark-comedy single ‘In the Neighbourhood’ is exquisite.

We’ll stick a couple of our songs in too which might be presumptuous (given the illustrious company) but we hope it fits in there as an overall entrée into this for the casual reader.

So, ‘The Streamlined Rag’ from 2020 is a Blind Boy Fuller-esque ragtime tune with double kazoo parts that are meant to invoke old style jazz like The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The song imagines living in the 1930s and with endless money, youthful abandon and free time you can be boarding the fastest streamlined express trains to travel and ‘hear the best dance bands’ all across the UK night after night. 

‘The Floor Will Be Thumping’ from 2018 uses Tampa Red style slide guitar but with added Boogie Woogie bass figures to get a ‘Jump Blues’ feel.

Why Washboards and why Resonators?

Being authentic to an era also means using the correct equipment. Hokum music from the 1930s often used kazoos, washboards, suitcase bass drums, jugs and other homemade novelty instruments that defined this genre.

British readers especially will be aware of the Skiffle movement of the 1950s and Lonnie Donnegan, its most famous exponent. Skiffle was essentially an Anglicised version of the sort of 1920s & 30s music I describe above. It was Donnegan that influenced many musicians like The Beatles, Jimmy Page and David Gilmour to pick up a guitar and start a band.

The washboard was a key part of this sound. Before washing machines, clothes would be washed with warm water and soap being scrubbed on the corrugated surface of a washboard. It didn’t take long for someone to realise you could scrub the ripples on the board and get a good approximation of a snare drum. Once you add wood blocks, bike horns, bells and cymbals you have converted a kitchen implement into a unique and functional instrument that can be found on many recordings of the 1920s and even up to Jack’s release (as I write this in April 2024) last week with the modern band, ‘Post Modern Jukebox’ singing ’It's Not Unusual’ with Washboard accompaniment.

The other key sound we have is the use of resonator guitars and they have an interesting history. Invented in 1926 by a Slovakian immigrant to California called John Dopyera, the resonator guitar is essentially an amplified guitar. But instead of using electricity through an amplifier, an aluminium speaker is mounted inside the body that works from vibrations from the strings.

They are louder than any other acoustic guitar and the ones that most would recognise are the all metal ones; nickel plated to a mirror like shine. They’re an exercise in art deco design and produce a sound that is distinctive and completely synonymous with much music from the 1920s & 30s as many professional recording artists used theirs on record.

Hear a resonator guitar in all its glory as intended on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 1938 hit song ‘That’s All.’

We’ve looked at clothing, instrument and playlist information; all hopefully to open a few doors to the interested and curious. So actually ‘that’s all’ for us here and as Blind Boy Fuller sang, “‘Keep on Truckin’.”


Listen to The 'Making Music' Playlist on Spotify.

  • Robert Johnson - Sweethome Chicago - 1936

  • Charley Patton - Down The Dirt Road Blues - 1929

  • Memphis Minnie - Me and My Chauffeur Blues - 1941

  • Son House - Walking Blues - 1930 or preferably 1942

  • Elmore James - Dust My Broom - 1951

  • T-Bone Walker - Stormy Monday - 1947

  • Glenn Miller - In the Mood - 1944

  • Original Dixieland Jazz Band - Tiger Rag - 1918

  • Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five - Heebie Jeebies - 1926

  • George Formby - When I’m Cleaning Windows - 1936

  • Tampa Red - It’s Tight Like That - 1928

  • Blind Boy Fuller - Rag Mama Rag - 1935

  • The Carter Family - Bury Me Beneath the Willow - 1927

  • Any Blind Boy Paxton song if they’re on streaming services 

  • CW Stoneking - Jungle Blues - 2009

  • Tom Waits - In the Neighbourhood’ - 1983

  • The Washboard Resonators - Streamlined Rag - 2021

  • The Washboard Resonators - The Floor Will Be Thumping - 2018

  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe - That’s All - 1938

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