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ESSAY King ofthe One-String by Fetzer Mills Jr. with photo· by Tom Rankin Glen Faulknerat home, Panola County, Mississippi, 199J. Allphotographs by Tom Rankin. 49 any Mississippi blues musicians—among them, ElmoreJames, Eddie Cusic, BigJackJohnson, Lonnie Pitchford, and Napoleon Strickland—began their musical careers by learning as cliüdren to play a one-stringed homemade instrument sometimes caUed a diddley-bow.1 A diddley-bow is usuaUy made by naiHng a wire to a wall or a board and using smaU bottles (often snuffbottles) as bridges at both ends of die wire. The instrument is ordinarily played widi a sUde of some sort, often a knife or a bottle. When buüt on a board, it is usually played on the lap, Hke a mountain dulcimer or lap steel guitar. The diddley-bow probably evolved from a musical bow commonly found in most ofsub-Saharan Africa but particularly prevalent on Africa's west coast, from which most American slaves were taken.* Sometimes, however, the same instrument seems to have been invented independendy by poverty-stricken but musicaUy inclined individuals with no knowledge ofits African antecedents. Bluesman Lonnie Pitchford ofHolmes County, Mississippi, for instance, says he figured out how to make one on his own when he was five or six years old and didn't know anyone else who made them, and blues researcher Selina O'Neal reports that white musicians in poor and isolated pockets ofthe Appalachians sometimes play very simUar one-stringed instruments.5 Most bluesmen left the diddley-bow behind after they got their first guitars, although Bukka White took it up temporarily when he couldn't afford guitar strings, and a few, Hke Pitchford, have continued to play the instrument occasionally as adults. Glen Faulkner, however, plays the diddley-bow exclusively— and masterfuUy (he has been recorded for a blues anthology and has toured Europe ). One day last summer, photographer Tom Rankin and I visited Faulkner at his home in the countryside between Senatobia and Como, Mississippi.4 As we puUed into the driveway, Faulkner was sitting on the front porch of his brick house, looking Hke a bluesman, in a short-brimmed Stetson, blue jeans, and what appeared to be hand-tooled cowboy boots. He invited us in, introduced us to his wife, and took us to his Hving room, where his electric diddley-bow sat on a chair. Faulkner's one-string is made from a piece of plywood cut widi a jigsaw into the shape ofa guitar, with a pickup cannibalized from a real electric guitar. A metal plate set into the body carries the legend, "King ofthe One String." Asked what he caUs his instrument, Faulkner answered, "A diddley-bow or a bow-diddley, eidier one." (Napoleon Strickland, from the same area, calls his a jitterbug.)5 Faulkner picked up the instrument, sat down, switched on the ancient ampHfier , and began to play, using a clasp knife for a sHde. But no sound came from the amp. He took a rubber maUet that was sitting nearby and gave die ampHfier a few sharp whacks. "Sometimes you have to hit it to get it working," he said, grinning. Then he ripped into four straight tunes, segueing direcdy from one to another. The first was a wüd version of"The Star Spangled Banner." (Jimi Hendrix's ren50 FETZER MILLS JR. dition had nothing on Faulkner's, especiaUy considering that Faulkner did it on just one string.) That led into die most bluesy version of "Happy Birthday" I've ever heard, foUowed by Hank WiUiams's "I Saw the Light," and finaUy Johnny Cash's "I WaUc the Line." An unusual medley, for sure, but somehow it worked and worked weU. I asked Faulkner if he ever sang while playing, and he repHed that he couldn't sing and almost never had anyone sing with him. He's primarily a solo instrumentaUst . I then asked why he chose to play the diddley-bow. He repHed that when he was a boy, his uncle had played one but didn't Hke anyone to watch him or Hsten to him whüe he played. NaturaUy, Faulkner became fascinated. He also grew up around a group...


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