Calico Introduces Washboard Music to Kids

washboard music

YERMO — Calico Ghost Town celebrated its annual Calico Days, a weekend-long experience revisiting life in the Old West during the 1800s. Various festivities that took place to commemorate Calico’s mining past included folk group The Billhillyz’ lesson on the washboard — a musical instrument rooted in Black slave culture that may have been brought West during the California Gold Rush.

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As early as the summer of 1849, White southerners brought Black slaves into the California mines. Slavery wasn’t popular in the mines, but there were no laws barring it in the early days of the gold rush. About 200 to 300 slaves came to work the gold fields. Black and white miners worked side by side.

black miner

This might explain the introduction of Southern folk music and instruments into European folk music of the cowboys creating a new distinct Western sound.

Many Southern folk instruments are common household items — washtubs, spoons, jugs and the washboard. These items were the only percussion instruments allowed during American slavery, as plantation owners did not allow the use of drums for fear of communicating secret codes for an uprising. 

Slaves would dance to rhythms beat out with their hands and feet until jug bands were established. These bands used jugs, spoons and washboards in lieu of instruments. The washboard is still used in Jazz, Zydeco, skiffle and old-time music today.

washboard music

It is important that various cultural practices are continued to be represented in depictions of the West. Recently, some historians have turned away from the traditional view of the West as an all-White landscape and are starting to embrace the West as a crossroads of cultures, where various groups struggled for property, profit, and cultural dominance. 


The American West 1865-1900. Retrieved from

Bennett, Herman. “Washboards.”