Diddley Bow Simple Music

Diddley Bow Simple Music
October 17, 2010
by Cinnamon Bair

First I found the photo. The black and white image was labeled simply, "Moses Williams playing the diddley bow: Waverly, Florida."

Click to enlarge

What in the world is a diddley bow?

And then I found a recording of Williams' music.

WHY in the world haven't I heard of a diddley bow before?

It turns out the music - a catchy, metallic plunk and slide created by as little as a single strand of wire - has been around a long time. And it's a not-so-distant forefather of the blues.

"The diddley bow . . . was almost invariably the first instrument of the aspiring slide guitarist," Steve James wrote in "Inside Blues Guitar. "There are numerous examples of more guitarlike instruments with resonating bodies, machine tuners, and even electric pickups. The basic style of playing, however, remains pretty much the same regardless of the shape or size of the instrument . . . primal slide!"

Single-string instruments are nearly as old as human history. Hunters might have discovered they could plunk their bows to make sound.

The diddley bow is not much more complicated than an early hunting bow. Brought to America by African slaves, it often consists of little more than a long piece of wire nailed to a board. Pictures and videos online show musicians making diddley bows by doing as little as nailing a wire to a standing porch upright. Others use a plank they can hold in their laps; a third popular design can take the shape of a cigar-box guitar. (Rhythm and blues great Bo Diddley was known to play a square guitar likely inspired by the diddley bow.)

The ways to play a diddley bow are nearly as varied as the ways to make one. The piece of wire can be plucked, strummed, drummed, fretted, or some variation thereof. And, of course, there's the slide - taking a piece of metal or glass and sliding it along the wire to change the sound.

Williams, who was known on the Florida folk music scene in the 1970s and '80s, used a combination of the pluck and the slide. His diddley bow - he called it a yakkedy board - was a tall, narrow, hollow closet door to which he nailed a piece of wire near the top. To play it, the Mississippi native would pluck the wire with one hand while sliding an empty bottle along the wire with the other.

"Now I know some people can play better music than me on the piano and guitar and things, but look, I wasn't raised up with that piano and I couldn't learn to read the book to learn to play the guitar like I really wanted," Williams told a crowd at the National Folk Festival, as quoted by Barry Lee Pearson in his 2005 book, "Jook Right On." "Of course I know a whole lot of people can learn without it, but I wasn't around a guitar as much as I was around this one string."

Williams' sound was pure blues. He had the classic blues voice. Deep, rich - melodically shuffling through gravel. And the way he played the diddley bow laid down bass and melody.

The best way to experience Williams and the diddley bow, however, is to hear it. Fortunately, some of his music has been preserved by the Florida State Archives at www.floridamemory.com. A quick search for "Moses Williams" on the main page will lead you to an MP3. (The direct link is long, but totally worth the typing: www.floridamemory.com/collections/folklife/folklifecd.cfm. His song is track 20.) Or, you can find a nice Flash presentation of Williams' music paired with old photos of him at www.davidbeede.com/DiddleyBowResources.htm.

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