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David Johnson

Elba, AL 1996

Guitarist/harmonica player/folk artist David Johnson lived in a square cinder block building with boarded windows in Elba, Alabama, and played Delta-style slide on his small Stella guitar. Slide guitar technique is thought to have developed from a rudimentary single string African instrument played by sliding a bone or other hard object the length of the string. In the Delta, a similar child’s toy called a “diddley bow” often served as the first musical instrument for aspiring young blues players, and the slider was used as a way to mimic the human voice on guitar in a call and response style first used in the church. A fad for Hawaiian music in the early 20th century further popularized the slide approach, and players across the South used everything from broken bottlenecks to knives to produce the distinctive, ethereal sound of genuine Delta blues. The first documented story of the use of the slide in the blues occurred in 1903, when bandleader W.C. Handy was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, MS. He awoke to the sounds of a man sliding an open pocket knife over the strings of his guitar, producing what Handy recalled as the “weirdest music I ever heard.” Handy later became known as the “father of the blues” because of his success in incorporating the new sound of the blues into his compositions.

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