by John Kelley
One of them is carrying a huge instrument - larger in fact than the musician - so large that it takes two people to carry it and so large he has to stand up to play it. The other fellow is carrying a wooden box the size of a briefcase. The musicians and the people say, "these do not look like something that belongs in a traditional band". But then the strangers start to play, the people listened and thought these instruments give the music a full, rich sound. They closed their eyes and they couldn't tell which new instrument was which. They open their eyes to watch the new musicians. The musician with the double bass was the only musician that had to stand to play, he was the only musician that had to have a horse and a cart to move his instrument, and they knew that his instrument must have taken up a significant part of his cabin just to store it. Then they looked at the fellow playing the BASS BOX. He looked comfortable sitting down on his instrument. He was playing with one hand and drinking from a fruit jar with the other. The musicians and the people closed their eyes again- they couldn't tell by listening which instrument was which. Folks decided that day that a real traditional band should consist of a fiddle, a banjo, a guitar, and something to make a bottom sound. The musicians and the people, being logical and practical, decided that from that day forward a real traditional band would consist of a fiddle, a banjo, a guitar, and a BASS BOX.
The sound was now complete. The people were happy. The musicians were comfortable. Everyone was content. Everyone lived happily ever after. And that is the reason there is a BASS BOX in every old-time band.*
*OK, OK-- I know this is just a fable. It wasn't until 1986 that John Kelley decided to try to introduce a this new instrument into old-time music.
Here is the real story- after playing and wrestling with a standup bass for 13 years I decided there must be a better way. I tried wash tub basses, electric basses, electric keyboards, electric foot pedals, etc. etc. Then on a trip to Jamaica, I saw folks playing an instrument in their traditional bands that just might do the job for a Southern old-time band. I came home and worked with a fiddle maker to make the first BASS BOX. Since then, I have been introducing the BASS BOX into old-time music.
It is a trip to watch peoples reaction to the BASS BOX- at first they look at it and say that doesn't look like a traditional instrument (I wonder if the first guitar player in the mountains had this same problem) - but then they listen and are surprised at how "right" the BASS BOX sounds.
Older musician seem to intuitively accept the BASS BOX- recognizing how practical they are. Revivalist musicians are slower to accept the BASS BOX- because it doesn't look traditional to them.
I am wondering if something that is practical, easy to carry, easy to play and adds to the music can be incorporated into traditional music. Is it possible for one person to change the "look" of an old-time string band? When every old-time band has a BASS BOX player- will folks pick up your BASS BOX and peer inside and say, "hey- you've got an original John Kelley pre-millennial BASS BOX!"?