Monday, June 23, 2014

The Diddley Bow (Musical Instrument), information & videos

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents information and selected videos about the musical instrument known as the "diddley bow".

The content of this post is provided for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted & featured in this post and thanks to the publishers of these YouTube videos that are featured in this post.

"What Is a Diddley Bow?

Basically, a diddley bow consists of one string stretched tightly between two nails or screws. Musicians either pluck or strike this string to create rhythmic patterns. Because the instrument has no frets along its neck like a guitar, musicians change pitch by moving a slide—usually the neck of a glass bottle—up or down the string.

From Scott Ainslie's BluesNotes: Diddley Bows
“The jumping off place for this BluesNotes on Diddley Bows is taken from Gerhard Kubik’s wonderful book, “Africa & the Blues” (University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

Writing about one-stringed instruments, Kubik cites David Evans wonderful “African-American One-Stringed Instruments” (Evans, 1970) and goes on to note that,
“Like many other African traditions and culture traits, the idea of the monochord zither seems to have smoldered on through the nineteenth century in an underground existence, perpetuated especially by children, and in the rare cases in which the instrument was perhaps observed by outsiders, it was not consider even worthy of report. Only when systematic research of the southern cultures began in the 1930s, does it become documented through photographs, and it was not recorded until the 1950s.”

This matches my experience with Diddley Bows and one-stringed instruments exactly. I first heard of these instruments from Romey Plum of the Lake Gaston area of eastern North Carolina, and subsequently from a variety of other Piedmont blues and gospel musicians. All these men spoke of the instruments with affection, as something from their childhood. Many of them made their first sounds on a stringed instrument fashioned from junk in the back yard or built on the sides of an out building, or in the case of Doug Quimby (of the Georgia Sea Island Singers), [attached to] the wall outside his mother’s kitchen!...

See below a picture of an unidentified player with a small bottle in his left hand, plucking the wire attached to the house. This photo is from the website Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi.)

[photo of man playing wire on the side of a barn]

As soon as other instruments became available, the one-strings were quickly abandoned by the players I knew, but their clear affection for the instruments drove me to begin building and playing them in the 1990s.

Kubik continues:
“In Africa, too, these instruments have been overlooked or not found worth reporting. For this reason we have notable gaps in our African distribution map. Monochord zithers are common in a relatively compact region of Africa including southeastern Nigeria, southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, and the southwestern tip of the Central African Republic....[the instruments] are played mostly by two (male) youngsters, one striking the string with two sticks, the other altering its pitch by stopping the string with a knife, bottle, or other object, often sliding along it.”


"Other nicknames for [the diddley bow] include "jitterbug" or "one-string", while an ethnomusicologist would formally call it a "monochord zither".

The musical instrument "Diddley Bow" probably got its name from the verb "diddle" combined with the noun "bow" (with its meaning of "a part of a stringed instrument").

Here's an excerpt of definitions for "diddle":
[with object] (usually be diddled) Cheat or swindle (someone) so as to deprive them of something:
‘he thought he’d been diddled out of his change’

1.1Deliberately falsify (something):
‘he diddled his income tax returns’

2 [no object] chiefly North American Pass time aimlessly or unproductively:
‘why diddle around with slow costly tests?’

More example sentences
2.1 (diddle with) Play or mess with:
‘he diddled with the graphics on his computer’
early 19th century: probably from the name of Jeremy Diddler, a character in the farce Raising the Wind (1803) by the Irish dramatist James Kenney (1780–1849). Diddler constantly borrowed and failed to repay small sums of money: the name may have been based on an earlier verb diddle 'walk unsteadily, swerve'.

with object] vulgar slang , chiefly North American Have sexual intercourse with (someone).
[originally in Scots dialect use in the sense 'jerk from side to side', apparently corresponding to dialect didder 'tremble']"
Hat tip to Rita for sending me an email with information about the meaning of the verb "diddle".

These videos are posted in chronological order, based on their posting date on YouTube, with the oldest dated videos given first.

Example #1: Lonnie Pitchford - Diddley Bow - African Roots of the Blues Part 4

The Dinizulu Archives, March 23, 2009

This is an excerpt of some footage Nana Kimati Dinizulu shot when he was conducting some research in Mississippi. The late Lonnie Pitchford can be seen and heard playing the diddley bow, a one string instrument of African origin. This footage was shot by Cheryl Johnson who introduced me to Lonnie Pitchford a few years before his passing which occurred in 1998.

Example #2: The History of The Diddley Bow


fatheadluv, August 13, 2009
This documentary excerpt features African American examples of the diddley bow and Malawi musicians & singers performing a Christian religious song 038- 2:49 “Ndidzayimbira Yehova" [ministryof] on a “diddley bow” like instrument using a shoe polish tin for his slide. One of the other musicians plays a guitar whose box is made out of a gasoline can.

A pancocojams post that features the video from which this clip was extracted will be published ASAP.

Example #3: Build a Diddley Bow in under 7 minutes ( one string guitar )!

fatheadluv August 13, 2009

How to make a diddley bow
Example #4: Simply Muta - Mutabaruka Interviews Nana Kimati Dinizulu - Part 2

The Dinizulu Archives, July 6, 2010

Muta interviews Nana Kimati Dinizulu on CVM TV in Kingston, Jamaica [about] Kimati Dinizulu upcoming album "Ancestral Spirits", part 2
The diddley bow segment in this interview between Jamaican Rastafari dub poet Mutabaruka and African American percussionist Nana Kimati Dinizulu is found at .052-1:15. Here's my transcription of Kimati Dinizulu's words during that brief segment:
"The diddley bow tradition in Mississippi and other parts of the South, you can use grandma’s snuff can or an old soup can. In West Africa the children would use an old coffee can or whatever can they could get a whole of…But it’s traced back to , the origins of the ancient forms of this instrument used a calabash…horse hair, and wood."


Justin Johnson, April 14, 2014

The Godfather of all stringed instruments - the one stringed diddley bow

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