Many moons ago, I found myself at a basement party where a band named after a Dungeons & Dragons creature provided the entertainment. The star of the show was a diminutive man with a bushy beard and a strange contraption draped across his chest. It looked to me like a badly wrought piece of armor, but that assumption was revealed to be flawed once he started rubbing two metal sticks across the garment’s surface. Oh, what beautiful noise that musician created simple by scratching himself vigorously. And ever since, I’ve counted myself a tremendous fan of the rubboard.
Adding to the instrument’s allure is its DIY backstory. Though obviously inspired by the freestanding washboard, a longtime fixture of so-called hot music, the draped-over-the-torso rubboard is of more recent vintage. Its alleged creator was none other than the legendary accordionist Clifton Chenier, whose brother Cleveland would go on to become the Paganini of the corrugated instrument. The story of Chenier’s prototyping process is told here:
Because [Cleveland Chenier] was employed at Port Arthur’s Gulf Oil plant, he easily located a metalworker who could bring that concept into being. As Clifton relates in a videotaped interview with Chris Strachwitz:
They used to tie a string around it, you know, and play it around the neck. So I went to a white fellow down there at the Gulf Refinery. I told him, I said, “You got some tin?”
He say, “Yeah.” So I got down on the ground, in the sad, and I drawed that rubboard.
And I said, “Can you make one like that? You know, with a collar plate?”
He say, “Sure, I can make one like that.” And he made one.”
Fabricated from a single piece of metal by a Cajun welder named Willie Landry (the “white man” of the preceding anecdote), it featured two smooth tabs designed to curve over each shoulder—what Chenier calls the “collar plate.” Supported in this fashion, the large corrugated rectangle that formed the main playing surface could hang freely over the entire front of the torso. Such an innovation offered a wider and longer board on which the percussionist could improvise his rhythmic strokes. It also liberated him from having to use one hand to grip the washboard or to steady it as it hung awkwardly from a string. Therefore, he could fully engage himself, using both his hands to scrape the board while he dance and weaved with the music.
I like this tale not only because I love me some rubboard, but also because it offers a intriguing model of innovation—one in which there is no schism between inventor and end user. This seems to be common practice in the world of music, perhaps because there’s a lot of overlap in the mental skills employed by musicians and engineers. I have no doubt, for example, that Les Paul could’ve built some mighty fine bridges if he hadn’t devoted his energies to making solid-body electric guitars instead. But it’s a rarer feat in other creative realms—I don’t believe that Henry Mill, for example, had any intention of using the first typerwriter to bang out the Great English Novel.
Fun rubboard fact: Willie Landry’s son is now America’s preeminent rubboard maker.