Contributed by Jon Gore (frontman for Re-Education Camp). Their latest release, PsyOp’s Boombox, is available on iTunes. Watch their music video for “Lesson Four: Five Enemies” at the bottom of the page! You can also listen to their recent interview on The Bad Apple Records Podcast.
I still remember it well. My friends and I would quickly eat our lunches in the middle school cafeteria. I would gobble down my PB&J and slug my juice box while my buddies polished off their square pizza slices, milk cartons, and tater tots. We were growing boys, so we had to eat fast, but we had other things in mind than our development. As soon as we were finished, we would start banging out a rhythm with our empty food containers and trays, including a “boom, boom, slap” with our hands on the top of the rollaway lunch tables. We were trying to get the same feel we got when we blasted our music at home after school and on the weekends. Little did we know that we were just continuing a musical tradition that has gone on for centuries and perhaps eons.
Turning everyday objects into musical instruments was actually the trigger behind most of the American musical styles that emerged in the 20th century. In poor black communities, especially, West African musical traditions paired with segregated schools barring musical education or the availability of instruments made people go for the DIY route instead. This is certainly not something unique to West African cultures. It’s clear that humans all over the world are at least three things: social, cultural, and musical. Bluegrass would never exist if not for the Scots-Irish.
Many of us were able to locate, save up, and buy the many instruments that we enjoy playing. We also have the ability to learn most musical styles fairly easily and cheaply. This was not the case, however, for the musicians in poor black communities during the 20th century. Little did they know that they would be starting a set of American musical styles that have gone on to dominate music worldwide.
What if you’re growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century and you wanted to make some music? How about hammering two nails into the side of a house, loop some fence wire on each end, and play the string using two glass bottles. Behold, you have a diddley bow!
…you have to appreciate the ingenuity of the blues and its wide influence.
Why is this important? Some credit this instrument as the birth of the blues sound, which in turn fathered jazz and later rock ‘n’ roll in all of its variations. It greatly influenced country music as well. These styles would then give birth to funk, disco, and soul. Of course, there were other instruments that were introduced to further round out the sound of each of these styles, but you have to appreciate the ingenuity of the blues and its wide influence.
Soon after, in Kentucky and Tennessee, people were picking up washtubs, washboards, jugs, and sometimes hollowed out gourds to create the first jug bands. These instruments and styles would later be used to form the root sound of zydeco and infused into bluegrass and country.
The “found instruments” movement headed by John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Karlheinz Stockhausen involved rooting around in junk yards to find the perfect (often percussive) instrument to use for new sounds. This technique would be used in a variety of musical styles, ranging from metal to rhythm & blues or even classical.
The same thing happened in other styles as well. In Trinidad during the 1940’s, the best source of metal available was the oil drums that were left there from the U.S. Navy. Drawing upon older designs of drums, the Trinidadians banged out some dents into those drums and created the steelpan (aka steel drum), which was one of the primary instruments for calypso and later other Caribbean styles including full steel orchestras playing classical European.
Turntables and records were used to create sounds (rather than to simply listen to them) as early as the 1930s, but they weren’t used extensively until four decades later with the birth of hip hop in the Bronx. This later gave birth to other forms of electronic music that heavily relied on prior recordings for their sounds.
We express ourselves as musical creatures…
Although the 20th century gets the credit for many of these breakthroughs, they are merely a continuation of musical traditions and techniques that have spanned human history, as we expressed ourselves as musical creatures. I can’t help but wonder, if I had continued with my paper lunch bag, if I would have become the first lunch bag virtuoso. One can always dream…
So, if you’re in a musical rut, try looking around and picking up the objects around you. You could be on the threshold of a new musical tradition!
Hear an interview with Jon and Zack from Re-Education Camp in the “Challenge the Echo” episode of The Bad Apple Records Podcast! Watch their music video for “Lesson Four: Five Enemies” from their PsyOp’s Boombox LP below…