In the late 1800s, the Storyville District of New Orleans was set apart as a 16-block red light district, giving the city a confined area where prostitution and drugs were not illegal. Naturally, where the party went, music followed.
Surprisingly, many of those musicians playing in the front of the brothels and bars were children—street urchins who sold newspapers by day and played music on homemade instruments at night.
One of the most prominent was the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, led by Emile “Stale Bread” Lacoume. They were the precursor to jug bands, playing wild Dixieland, minstrel and skiffle music on instruments cobbled together from trash. Cigar box guitars, cheese box banjos, gas pipe horns and upright tea chest basses were part of the sound. Contemporaries report that the style was imitated by adult orchestras such as the Right At 'Em Razz Band, which featured future Original Dixieland Jass Band clarinetist Alcide Nunez.
And many historians consider the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band to be the first jazz band. In one unlikely story adults stole the band’s name, and when the kids protested, the adults renamed them the “Razzy Dazzy Jazzy Band.” Another story has a newspaper reviewer calling their sound “jazzy,” a first for any publication.
And this week, cigar box guitars are returning to the Big Easy for the very first New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival. The city has been witnessing the explosion of the modern cigar box guitar movement and decided to pay tribute with a three day festival.
The New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival runs this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Frenchmen Theater in the heart of the French Quarter. Thursday night presents a showing of the new cigar box guitar documentary, Strung Together. Concerts and seminars will fill Friday and Saturday’s schedule, including April Mae & the JuneBugs, Jontavious Willis and the Stacy Mitchhart Band.
Not only will I be performing there Saturday night with my Snake Oil Band, but I’ll be emceeing part of the earlier events. If you’re a homemade instrument builder, bring one of your best pieces along to show it off.
More information and tickets are at NewOrleansCBG.com.
Shane Speal is the "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at ShaneSpeal.com. Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.