Dave Harris in 2009, Victoria BC

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


There are a few misconceptions and questions concerning this unique instrument and this blog will hopefully lay most of them to rest. In my research on one man bands, for the book I'm writing, I have been shocked to find there are only three artists that have this strange foot operated bass instrument. There may possibly be more but not so far as I've found. Of course, the first was by its inventor, the late great one man band, Jesse Fuller. The other two artists are Robert 'One Man" Johnson and myself. Each of us has variations in ours but the basic principles are the same.
Fotdella or actually footdella, as it is pronounced, according to blues/folk artist Jesse Cahn. Jesse Cahn was a family friend of Fuller's, as a boy. His parents, folk/blues/jazz artists, Rolf Cahn and Barbara Dane were early supporters of Jesse's, hiring him to play in their clubs and having him over to their house. So, while generally spelled fotdella, it is pronounced footdella. The name was coined by Jesse's wife, Gertrude; fot from foot and della from killer-diller, an old expression used by jazz musicians for something hip or cool. So, a hot foot, which Jesse had, nimbly playing ragtime bass lines with his right foot, high-hat cymbals with his left, while playing deft Piedmont blues inspired 12 string guitar, harp or kazoo, and singing.
There has been speculation that the instrument was a converted upright bass but in fact, Jesse bent the wood himself, to create the instruments body. Jesse had worked for a barrel making company as a boy, learning the skills he put to use on the fotdella. The first prototype lay out flat on the ground (according to Jesse Cahn) and was rather like a grand piano but took up too much space. Jesse figured out a way to stand it up and that is what we see in the various pictures or videos that exist. There is an interesting but unsubstantiated story that Jesse initially built it as a coffin, for his grandson, who was supposedly dying of the flu. The kid recovered and Jesse turned it into a fotdella. Its a fun story but it can't really be likely, although in the famous picture of Jesse with the fotdella sitting next to him, the fotdella does look like a small coffin. Jesse made quite a few versions over the years, as it was quite a temperamental instrument and prone to breakdowns. This is supported by the photos and videos, which definitely show several different models. He would apparently cannibalize the broken model into a new one, reusing some of the parts. Most pictures seem to show six strings, although Robert 'One Man' Johnson remembers only five on the one Jesse had at a 1966 show, that Robert organized. The notes, as best as I can tell, were A, C, D, E, F and G (I'm not positive of the arrangement), the notes needed for "San Francisco Bay Blues" in the key of C. Jesse used piano wire for strings and clamped down the strings with nuts. The pedals were a bunch of piano keys (Jesse had to play barefoot with his big toe, as the notes were quite close together) that were wired to piano hammers that hit the strings, along with a damper that closed off the notes afterwards. Apparently the working mechanisms folded inside the body. I'm not too sure about this. It seems to have worked quite well on the recordings and Jesse truly sounds like a band of simple players (guitar excepted, quite fancy, at times!).
Robert 'One man' Johnson took this a step further, calling his a Foot Piano. I haven't studied his nearly as much, but it is a small full one octave chromatic scale (12 notes, piano arranged) instrument, again played barefoot and I'm guessing, its quiet acoustically, as it's quite small. I'll add more, as I gain the information (still waiting on recordings, for example).
My own (I have two) were built for me by Glenn Orr and they are both rather quiet, prone to problems, but definitely add to the sound. My first has eight strings with enough spread in the pedals to keep my shoe on. This is good, as it can be cool here in Victoria BC, sometimes, and I'm outdoors. I also switch to drums on some songs. The second, and one I currently use, has 12 strings (the extra four are recessed as a second row (and I seldom use them). I have mine tuned in fifths (or fourths, depending on which way you go), left to right - B,E,A,D,G,C,F,Bb. This allows for simple root five bass patterns with minmal foot movement. I can play most things in C, F or G and blues in D, A and E as well. Mine also have pieces right out of a piano that are removeable, with the hammers to hit the strings and dampers. When removed, I can fold the pedal board up against the strings, and the part that is most vulnerable (the hammers) is stored in a suitcase. Setup is quick, I just place the piano piece into the slots and possibly align a hammer or two. Takes seconds. My pedals push the hammers up to strike the strings, Jesse's pulled down. I use electric bass guitar strings with bass guitar tuning machines. I'll try to post some pictures here eventually.

Monday, August 24, 2009

One Man Band Book

Well, I'm already well under way with this and have a lengthy blog on myspace at www.myspace.com/daveharrisonemanband but it was suggested to me that some people couldn't comment on it, as they weren't myspace members. So I thought I'd start another and this is it! Going to take a few days to get this up, so if you happen on it, bear with me. I'm quite busy right now but I'll put in a few minutes each day adding to it. The general concept is to give some idea of how the book is moving forward, contacts made, comments received, that kind of thing. I think the next time I work on this I'll try to start with a list of everyone slated for inclusion. Back soon!

August 25
Alright, I'm going to tackle this list. This is the culmination of many hours of research on youtube, myspace, Roctober magazine One Man Band Encylopedia, my memory and other people's contributions. If you read this and don't see someone you feel you should, let me know! The order here doesn't really reflect any particular bias but I will attempt to get the earlier and bigger names first.

Jesse Fuller, Joe Hill Louis, Dr Ross, Daddy Stovepipe, Stovepipe #1, Fate Norris, Abner Jay, Wilbert Harrison, Joe Barrick, Driftin' Slim, Duster Bennett, Blind Joe Hill, Juke Boy Bonner, JD Short, Hasil Adkins, John Hammond, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson 11, Willie Nix, Willie Love, Papa Lightfoot, Ray Stubbs, Greeley Robertson, Frank Frost, Hezekiah Early, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Washboard Willie, Homer Henderson, Johnny Lowebow, Paul Oscher, WC Spencer, Satan (Sterling Magee), Adam Gussow, Mike Whellans, Don Partridge, Woody's One Man Band, Blues Boy Jag, Nikolaj Andersen, Frank Plagge, Eric Royer, Robert "one man" Johnson, Big One Man Band, Smokestack & The Foothill Fury, Ben Prestage, Becky Lee & Drunkfoot, Pete Farmer, Molly Gene, Lone Wolf, Buskin' Chris, Gee Gee Kettel, Dave Harris, Bobby Joe Neely, Marc Twymans, Red Mouth, Michael Jerome Browne, Dan The Man The One Man Band, Adolphus Bell, King Louie, Bob Log 111, Paulo Gallo, Right On John, Rollie Tussing, Mike Cooper, Rizorkestra, Nathan James, Chucklefoot, Buddy One Man Band, Christopher of the Wolves, Hubert Kern, Funny Tombow, John Schooley, John Alex-Mason, Des Bader, Reverend Deadeye, Professor Gizmo, Washboard Hank, Phillip Roebuck, Jeff Martin, Jord Peck, Scott Dunbar, David Skunk, Steve White, Band of Ones, Matt Kurz, David Holt, Richard Johnston, Caveman, Jimmy Jimmy, Peter Joseph Paul, Bloodshot Bill, Diane Primeau, Swan Walker, Aaron Watson, The GMan, Andy Kreischer, Leonard Solomon, Sylvain Chaisson, Ben Arnold, Tommy Bankhead, Paul Blackman, Marc Bristol, Clyde Casey, Greg Chapman, Stompin' Tom Connors, Clate Cooper, Mak Dervo, Dr Musikus, Ed Durbrow, Vic Ellis, The Flying Dutchman, Roy Gardner, Lawrence Glaister, Pete Gray, Scott Hall, John Hartford, Patrick Hazell, Larry Horton, Pete Isaacs, Skip Jensen, Charles W J Johnson, Jingles OMB, Keith Walsh Experience, Charles Kelly, Raymond M, Harry Manx, Jeff Maslin, Major McCa, Haskel May, George McAnthony, Gray Montgomery, Bo Mooney, Paul Moore, The Musician Who Played Nine, Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger, Frank Pahl, Jerry Paquette, Pug, Jimmy Lee Robinson, Ron The Piper, Marty Rose, Alan Rowe, Roy The Amazing OMB, Frank Runaud, Rudy The OMB, Chris Smither, Bernard M Snyder, Tampico, Benjamin Tehoval, Tom's OMB, Tom Todd, Bobby Welles, Joe West, WC Williams and John Weston. (OMB = one man band)
Whew! It's getting to be quite a list and some of these names will just get mentioned. If the order seems rather odd it's because I copied what I had in my myspace list, then added the list I just finished gathering out of Roctober magazine. By the way, all of these artists create their sounds manually; that is by "heads, hands and feet" as Ray Stubbs would say. This is my mandate for the book, so you won't see any beat box, electronic (MIDI), backing tracks, looping etc type one man bands. I'll leave that field for someone else! Anyway, it seems that I've got my work cut out for myself with this list! What do you think?

Ok, here's what another afternoon of surfing one man band "friends on myspace" produced (mostly from Johnny Lowebow, he has a lot (!) of OMBs on his site): Pete Yorko, Stacy Puckett, Rocket Craig, Mark Simpson, Skeeter Matthews, Xavier Rudd (still trying to confirm that he works solo), One Man Destruction Show, Bob Bucket, The Fabulous Go Go Boy From Alabama, Tim Scanlan, One Man Hand, Via Vengeance, Claude Hay, Juggernaut Boy, Sheriff Perkins, Legendary Tigerman, Miss Firecracker, Rob The Throb OMB, Guy Roel, Pigmeat's OMB, JJ Culpepper, Thad Sand, Erik Fingers Ray, One Man Army, Amazing OMB, Sebastopol, Only Moses, Chicken Mithyc, Margaret Doll Rod, cdub dine, Spookyman, El Monstro, Matt Mayhem, C W Ayon and I ran out of time. I'm beginning to see that the book can't cover everyone but I'll at least do everyone the courtesy of looking over their sites and video on youtube and everyone listed will at least be mentioned in a relevant place in the book. The bias of the book is towards the roots styles of blues, hillbilly, folk and early R&R. So I may condense all of the hardcore / punk people into a few pages. And as I already said, "If there's a drum machine/looping or a MIDI setup or computer or backing tracks, I won't be including them". That may be a bit harsh in some cases but I feel strongly about everything being simultaneously created by one person. By the way, nice to see a few more women in there; the field does seem very male dominated. Well, I'll be back!

Sept 30
Ok, I know, I kind of let this slide. I've been keeping up to date on the myspace blog, so go there to catch up. I've got almost all of Chapter One written. It goes from the earliest recorded information on the subject up to the early 50's. I've included background on a few odd instruments: stump fiddle, hurdy gurdy, development of the harp rack, and the early innovations. I've also included brief coverage of Henry Thomas, Frank Floyd, Gus Cannon and others that fall on the periphery of the genre. Main artists covered include: "Blind Fiddle & Bells OMB in old London", Fate Norris, Daddy Stovepipe, Stovepipe #1, Bogus Ben Covington and many lesser or lesser known characters. Stay tuned!

Oct 2
Well things are going gang-busters here and I have Chapter 1 done, barring additions and editing. I'm now well into Chapter 2 on Jesse Fuller, easy to get up for this one! Good pieces by Robert "One Man" Johnson and Tim Williams are a big help, with shorter ones from Jesse Cahn and Ian Bennetts still to add. I'm hoping for more from Jesse Cahn and Chris Whiteley. I have tons of notes and messages out to people asking for comments. However, Fuller is a pretty easy chapter, there's so much out there about him. I'm going to do my very best by him, though. If there is a more deserving guy for this than Jesse, I can't think who! He is the epitome of what a OMB should be. His blend of musicality, depth, sensitivity, showmanship, humour and passion is hard to beat! He's my personal inspiration as a OMB.

Oct 8
Well, Jesse's chapter is well under way and hopefully I'll finish the bulk of it in the next day or two. The Straniero, a OMB out of Italy may contribute on the European scene, which would really help! Getting more names (sorry, you have to see the blog on myspace to see them) from Nik Andersen, Billy Hutchinson, Rolf Stensletten, Billy Campin and The Straniero. The list is getting alarmingly long and I'm quickly coming to the realization that I will have to just give some of them mentions. Lots of researching getting done too!

Oct 18
Okay, Jesse Fuller is done except for additions and editing! Good help from Nik Andersen with a nice overview of current N Europe scene. Mark The Straniero is sending stuff, Jimmy Jimmy sent good piece on older Europe and ties to Aussie scene. Really developing nicely, especially Europe. Doro from onemanbands on myspace is doing piece on garage/punk/thrash scene. Ray Stubbs is sending stuff. It's coming!

Nov 4
Sorry, let it slide again. I wonder if anyone is even reading this? Well, I now have Joe Hill Louis, Dr Ross, Drifting Slim and several others lesser known OMBs done, barring additions and editing. Discovered quite a few more but the most exciting one was Albert Nelson (1884-1964) and his incredible creation the Nelsonian, a self operated 32 instrument contraption! I can't believe it took 5 months to find this guy! A book and recordings are on the way. Good help from Alan Balfour, Frank Scott, Mary Katherine Aldin, Blackie Farrell, many people. Let Me Be Your Band is great OMB movie. Bio/CDs/DVDs from Straniero, Lindsay Porteus, Ray Stubbs, it's really coming. Waiting on CDs of Don Partridge and Abner Jay.