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Blind James Campbell and His Nashville Washboard Band

“Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be”–This is the song that we have been singing for the past several weeks here in the Music Section of the National Library Service (along with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in their song “Tennessee Jed”).  The NLS national conference in Nashville has now come and gone, but just in case you still have a hankering for more Tennessee sounds, today I’d like to introduce you to another musician who helped put the music in Music City: Blind James Campbell.

Photographic print that shows a grouping of folk musical instruments including homemade horns, homemade drum, and washboard.

Folk musical instruments including homemade horns, homemade drum, and washboard. Photographic print from the Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Created 1934-1950. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c04527

James Campbell was an African American musician whose washboard band was a fixture on the Nashville music scene for years. Born in 1906, he began playing guitar at 13 but didn’t pursue music as a career until the age of 30, when he became blind as a result of an accident at the fertilizer plant where he worked. He formed a group called the Nashville Washboard Band, in which he played guitar and sang lead vocals. His bandmates played mandolin, lard can (or tub bass), and washboard. In its heyday Blind James Campbell and His Friendly Five (as the group was dubbed) performed all over town, most often for white audiences: road houses, parties, square dances, Vanderbilt University fraternity houses, and on the streets of Nashville. Record producer Chris Strachwitz describes James Campbell as having “a large repertoire which included many standard blues, country breakdowns, jazz, pop songs of the past, gospel songs, and ballads. He also composed and improvised verses as well as entire songs.”

Strachwitz recorded Campbell’s band for the Arhoolie record label, which released Blind James Campbell and His Nashville Street Band in 1962. In his liner notes for the 1995 re-issue of the album, Strachwitz recounts how he became interested in recording the group after hearing a sample of what he described as “a wonderfully loose and bluesy group of street musicians from Nashville, [Tennessee], who played a most fascinating hybrid of blues, hillbilly, jazz, old time popular, minstrel, skiffle, and jug band elements.” He believed that “the band had a spirit, authenticity and vitality seldom, if ever, evident among Nashville’s legions of slick and polished super stars.”

Speaking of jug band music, did you know that in between passionately pursuing bluegrass banjo and later starting a rock band, Jerry Garcia played in a jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions? Garcia, along with jug bandmates Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, went on to play rock and roll in a band called the Warlocks. Until the Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead.

Want to learn more about jug band and washboard music? Check out these titles in the NLS collection:

New Orleans Jazz (DBM00129): Turn-of-the-century jazz in authentic New Orleans jazz-band style, with horn, washboard and bell, saxophone, banjo, and drums.

A History of Jazz: The New York Scene (DBM03615): Listen to “Log Cabin Blues” by Clarence Williams’ Washboard Five.

Make Your Own Musical Instruments (DB 70021): Learn to make your own jazz washboard.

World’s Greatest Hits of the 20’s, 30’s (BRM28381): Learn to play “Washboard Blues” with this braille score. For voice and piano.

Classic Harmonica Blues (DBM03629): Listen to “Custard Pie” by Sonny Terry and a washboard band.

Jazz–Volume 4: Jazz Singers (DBM03755): Listen to the Dallas Jug Band play “You Gotta Have That Thing.”

Virginia Traditions: Early Roanoke Country Radio (DBM03653): Listen to the Roanoke Jug Band play “Stone Mountain Rag.”

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (DB 76468) by John Szwed. Includes a chapter on “Skiffle: From Folk to Pop.”

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg (DB 89249).

If you have questions about borrowing any of the books listed above, please contact the NLS Music Section by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2. You can also search BARD, the Braille and Audio Reading Download service, for books in the NLS Music collection that you can access instantly. And don’t forget to browse our Music Appreciation Catalog, Music Instruction Catalog, and Large-Print Scores and Books Catalog.

Additional related resources from the Library of Congress:

Inquiring Minds: Folklife Center Shines a Light on the Skiffle Craze

Billy Bragg, Skiffle Historian and Singer, Visits the Library July 21

Video: Book Talk by Billy Bragg on His Book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, July 21, 2017


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