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The DIY Musician: One String Sam — the Backstory to Jack White’s Diddley Bow

If you’ve seen the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, you’ll probably remember the unusual introduction scene:

Jack White stands next to the porch of an old house, hammering a nail into each end of a 3-foot long section of 2x4.

He takes a length of wire stripped from a broom and winds it around the nails and then props up the broom wire at one end with a Coca-Cola bottle. After nailing a pickup to it, he plugs the contraption in and plays a screaming slide guitar lick.

What White built was a diddley bow, the traditional slide instrument built and played by poor Southern children in the early 1900s. Most accounts of diddley bows spoke of nailing the broom wire directly to the side of a barn or house and using bricks or bottles as makeshift bridges to prop it up. A bottle was used as a slide, and the entire building would act as the resonator!

But White’s diddley bow was made on a 2x4, and I suspect he was paying homage to a Detroit legend, One String Sam.

In 1956, an unknown street musician named "One String" Sam Wilson walked into Joe’s Record Shop on Hastings Street in Detroit, carrying a plank of wood containing a single string. The shop also had a recording studio in the back, and Sam proceeded to record two songs on his diddley bow, “I Need a Hundred Dollars” and “My Baby Ooh.”

One String Sam used an empty baby food jar as a slide and would sometimes hold it up to his mouth when he sang, giving his vocals a strange echo sound. The music was pure Southern deep-country blues with a call-and-response feel between his vocal and that single string.

The two tracks were released as a 10-inch single by the JVB Recording Company (JVB release #40) and made its way into jukeboxes throughout the Detroit area.

Sam continued busking for a few more years, disappeared into obscurity and was then rediscovered in 1973, still living in the slums of Detroit. He also still had that diddley bow. Promoters asked him to perform again, and he took the stage at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, where he played the two songs he recorded 17 years earlier.

Sam played a handful of shows, including the 1974 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, dates with B.B. King and the Blues Extravaganza in Toledo, Ohio.

An autographed concert poster of the Blues Extravaganza concert was given to me by the Godfather of the Cigar Box Guitar, the late Donald “Boz” Bostwick. Boz was there to witness One String Sam onstage and backstage and was blown away by the mastery One String Sam showed on his diddley bow.

When asked to put his autograph alongside that of J.B. Hutto, Bo Bo Jenkins and A.C. Reed on this poster, One String Sam goofed off with the pen, pretending to sign his name in the air. It was then that Boz realized Sam was most likely illiterate and couldn’t write his own name.

One String Sam’s performance at the ’73 Ann Arbor Blues Fest was recorded and eventually released on the album Motor City Blues (1998, Total Energy Records). His original 1956 recordings are available on Document Records’ Rural Blues No. 1.

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 Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.