Anyway, as it turns out, the esteemed Mr. Guy, like many young black men in Lousiana in the 1930s and ’40s, first learned to play music on a homemade Diddley Bow, aka “the jitterbug.” Buddy’s had two strings, but a Diddley Bow typically has a single string, leading to the instrument’s other nickname, the “one-string,” or its formal name, the “monocord zither,” which was also the name of a Lizard Men chieftain in the original Flash Gordon serials (okay, I made that last part up).
The Diddley Bow is usually played with a glass slide or a whiskey bottle, but the best-known appearance of the instrument on film is in Alan Lomax’s movie The Land Where the Blues Began. In the following clip, its best-known proponent Lonny Pitchford plays it sans slide, somewhat hilariously due to the narrator sounding like he just stepped out of a 1954 film entitled How to Survive a Nuclear Attack.
You can watch the entire Lomax movie at Folkfilms.net, by the way.
The instrument gave its name (like, duh) to a guy who arguably could be the most influential guitarist to emerge from the black community in the 1950s, and just maybe the most influential rhythm guitarist between the eras of Leadbelly and Lou Reed. That’d be Bo Diddley, and if you didn’t see that one coming, you might want to brush up on your history of rhumba-influenced chugging guitar sounds or maybe just play it safe and go back to listening to Lawrence Welk.
The Diddley Bow sounds nothing like that chunky-rhythm Panic in Detroit shit, though; it’s all down-home Delta moonshine and I-got-a-bad-feeling-I-cut-my-brother-in-half, as demonstrated in this fine video in which a mullet-damaged rock nerd plays a few gorgeous lines with a 100ml Jack Daniels bottle to show off his homemade diddley bow “Hellhound,” fashioned from a two-by-four with an Altoids-tin resonator and a bridge made outta galvanized pipe.
Said video directs also directs one to the creator’s online store where Hellhound was once upon a time offered for sale, and one-of-a-kind diddley bows are promised “soon.”
The instrument has since been played by a cat named Seasick Steve and NY jazz pianist Cooper-Moore, not to mention, of course, James “Super Chikan” Johnson, shown playing a diddley bow at the “Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise” in the image at the top of this post. Jack White of The White Stripes makes one in the electric-guitar documentary It Might Get Loud (watch the clip here).
But if you want some serious down-home diddley bow playing, look no further than the clip below, where a gawkish, bewilderingly Aryan mini-redneck plays an electric diddley bow while sitting on a combine.
Incidentally, those fine moves the esteemed Lonnie Pitchford displays in the 1979 Lomax film may seem original to him, but he actually musta learned ’em from musicians his grandparents age, as he is twenty-freakin’-four in that clip. Pitchford died in 1998 of AIDS at age forty-three.
Pitchford has the final word on the diddley, bow, though. In 2000, Creedence Clearwater Revival cat and longtime San Francisco area resident John Fogarty made a donation through Mt. Zion Memorial, a nonprofit fund that seeks to memorialize the graves of rural black roots musicians, for Mr. Pitchford to get a gravestone worthy of him. At the request of Pitchford’s family, the headstone contains a playable diddley bow, which just might be the only thing cooler than having a woman in black leave flowers on your gave once a year (or not dying in the first place).
Top image from GuitarInternational.com.
Links from North Mississippi Commentator.