Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Washboards: A Folk Music Transformation

For centuries, musical instruments have evolved from their simpler origins into complex tools of melodies. Many have continued to be played in ways that are similar to their first use, but one unexpected instrument has had such a complete transformation from its original purpose that it’s made more than 180 degree turn around. The washboard made its musical transformation in the early 1900’s when it was adopted by a new age revolutionary era of music.

Before its musical debut, the washboard was widely known in the 18th and 19th century as a tool used to dry off articles of washed clothing. It was comprised of a rectangular wooden frame with a configuration of multiple ridges down the middle where clothes were rubbed on to drain off the water out. Then came the 1920’s with its “Roaring Twenties” jazz culture.

With the inclusion of metal in the washboard’s structure, the washboard morphed from almost daily household use to an instrument of modern music. It grew in popularity among zydeco (product of the blues genre), jazz, jug bands (used home-made instruments) and other forms of folk music.

Musicians who used the washboard would wear metal thimbles on most of their fingers, and strum the, along the ridges of the washboard. A thin piece of rope or string was worn around the musician’s neck and attached to the washboard for stability. The results included zany and rhythmically enhancing sounds that infused folk music with a new style.

Like most instruments, the washboard’s structure and usage went through several transitions. In zydeco music, the washboard took the name “frottoir.” In time it was created to with metal ridges and was worn like a vest. The thimbles were replaced by spoon handles or bottle openers in an assortment of strumming and tapping movements. In jug bands, the washboard acted as the drums and was played as the back beat to other instruments.

Seen as the “poor man’s instrument,” the washboard helped to usher in a new era of instruments and melodies. Its popularity flourished in the “Flapper Era” while keeping its southern rhythm and blues tempo. As is the case with all folklore, this folk musical instrument was adopted by people to meet different, yet specific times and needs.


  1. It is really eye-opening how evolved American music has become. This article really helps put into perspective how significant the early roots of musical instruments were. They perpetuate the ongoing creativity that music endures.

  2. Music is definitely one of the ways a cultures keeps its values. And who would've thought a washboard could be so versatile?