Perhaps the name “Washboard Sam” implied that he was a specialty act or a lightweight. He was neither.
An interesting thing about researching the older artists featured on this website is the apparent randomness of who is remembered and who is forgotten.
The Wikipedia entry for Washboard Sam says that he played with such still-remembered musicians as Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. The entry says that Sam, who was born in Arkansas, was thought to be Broonzy’s half-brother. That information is unreliable if it came from Broonzy himself, since was a great guitarist who lied a lot.
In any case, Washboard Sam was forgotten—perhaps because he played the washboard and not the guitar. It’s a shame: He is just great. I am sorry that I couldn’t find any video of him playing, but the music is terrific.
Many of these players enjoyed late success, especially those who hung on until the college kids and Brits got interested. Sam, unfortunately, was not in this group. Wikipedia said that he was buried in an unmarked grave in 1966. It’s nice to know that eventually somebody did remember: A benefit was held in 2009 and enough money raised to buy a proper headstone.
AllMusic says that Sam became known in Memphis and ended up in Chicago. He was, according to the entry, the most popular of the washboard players of the era. That was likely due to his songwriting and vocal abilities. The item says that his real name was Robert Brown. I suppose that Washboard Sam sounds better than Washboard Bob.
Above is “Diggin’ My Potatoes” which, according to one of the comments, features Broonzy on guitar and Willie Dixon on base. The guitarist is great, no matter who he is. Below is “Don’t Tear My Clothes.” I am not a musician, but it seems that something unique is going on melodically and rhythmically. I would have featured “Soap and Water Blues,” but it didn’t quite pass the misogyny and/or pure nastiness tests. It’s pretty funny, though.
Editor’s note: After listening to Washboard Sam again, it seems worthwhile to point out that the washboard is a unique instrument in that it actually is the integration of a common household item — at that time, of course — into the art of making music. That seems fundamentally different than a guitar, piano, trumpet and others that are created solely to make music and probably descended from instruments intended to mimic sounds found in nature.