While watching the mass of the Abyssinian Orthodox church in Debra Lanos in 1930, during the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh noted that the liturgy was “quite unintelligible.” As a Roman Catholic, he had thought that the “canon of the Mass would have been in part familiar, but this was said in the sanctuary behind closed doors.” This observation led him to reflect on the exoteric (as opposed to esoteric) nature of Western Christianity:
“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions in the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian religion. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the [Christian] Church as a process of elaboration — even of obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable….”
Parenthetically, I would note that this last observation captures the beliefs of many Unitarian Universalists: that early Christianity, in the days before the Nicene Creed — or Paul, or whomever one believes to be the bogeyman who spoiled true Christianity — was pure and simple. But let us continue with Waugh’s meditation:
“At Debra Lanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished, and I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing: as dark and hidden as the seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of the barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room in the side street of some Mediterranean seaport; slaves at dawn creeping from the grey twilight into candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office, practising trades; their identity was known only to initiates; they were criminals against the law of their country. … And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists can clatter round with their Baedeckers, incurious of the mystery.” (Evelyn Waugh, “A Coronation in 1930,” When the Going Was Good [Penguin Books, 1946/1976], pp. 118-119)
Waugh, in 1930, was a recent and fervent convert to Roman Catholicism, and a good part of what he wrote here may be classed as Catholic apologetics directed at his Church of England readers. And some of what he wrote came from the fanciful imagination of the novelist, which is not to say that it is untrue, but it isn’t careful and dry academic discourse. And there is a core of truth in what he wrote: the mainstream of Western religion tends towards the exoteric, rather than the esoteric. This is as true of Protestantism and newer forms of Christianity as it was of Waugh’s Roman Catholicism. When the Pentecostal receives the baptism of the Spirit and speaks in tongues, it happens in front of the gathered congregation, and videos may be taken of the event and posted on Youtube. When the Unitarian Universalist minister delivers a highly intellectual sermon, everyone is welcome to come and listen to it, though you may need an advanced degree to keep up with the literary allusions and verbal footnotes.
Fifty years ago today I was eight years old, and it was a summer day in Concord, Massachusetts. I have vague memories of watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television set. But did we watch it while it was happening, or did we watch it on the news later on? I think we watched on the news later in the day.
What I do remember is that it was a big topic of conversation among kids my age. Kids in my neighborhood also talked about how we were going to have to leave Alcott school and go to a new school in the fall. We probably also talked about the new split in the American League between the East and West divisions, and my hero Jim Longborn was still pitching for the Red Sox. But the moon landing had the biggest impact on my imagination, by far.
In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the impact the moon landing had on my imagination. I was so sure there would be regular travel to the moon by the year 2000. When I studied physics in college and understood how much energy it takes to lift humans out of earth’s gravity well, regular travel to the moon began to seem far less probable.
These days I am far more cynical. Before I get excited about moon travel, I want to know where the energy is going to come from, and what the carbon footprint of moon travel will be. These days, I’m more interested in how we might reduce carbon in the atmosphere, to lessen the impact of global climate change. Which means that I’m far more interested in the Trillion Tree Campaign that perhaps “could capture 25% of global annual carbon emissions.” I guess you could say that self interest has prompted a greater interest in ecological science than in astronomy or astrophysics.
Steve lent me his washtub bass, so I could take it home and try to learn to play it.
Steve’s washtub bass is simplicity itself: a 15 gallon galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom; a length of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, and a broom handle with an eyebolt screwed in one end and a slot cut in the other end. Tie a stopper knot in one end of the rope, thread it up through the hole, and tie it to the eyebolt. Place the slot of the broom handle on the rim up the upturned washtub, pull the string taut, and there you are.
Playing the washtub bass is not so simple. You have to put one foot on the rim of the washtub to keep it on the ground. You adjust the pitch by changing the tension of the rope by tilting the broom handle back and forth. The range is pretty limited — I got less than an octave — and it’s a challenge to get exactly the pitch you want. The biggest disadvantage, though, is that playing it took a lot out of me: it’s a real workout to move that broom handle back and forth, and twanging the braided rope is hard on your hands. After half an hour, it became clear that it was going to take more time than I was willing to devote to building up strength and building up callouses.
There had to be a better way. I began researching other ways of building and playing the washtub bass.
Eddie Holland of Possum Trot, Kentucky, built himself a two-string washtub bass with a fixed neck that you play by fretting, not by moving the neck. He’s a heck of a player, and his bass sounds great, but by the time you buy the hardware, the tuning machines, and a couple of strings for an upright bass, his bass probably cost a couple hundred dollars.
Shelley Rickey has a washtub bass made out of a big plastic tub with an arm bolted on the side; the string is fretted by means of a short length of PVC pipe that you slide up and down. She has a video where she plays cigar-box uke and her partner plays the bass, and the bass sounds good. But it still takes a lot of muscle: “I’ve been playing it now for five years,” Shelley writes, “and have developed the arms of a lumberjack.”
I found different playing styles, too. “Washtub Jerry” stands with both feet on the rim of the washtub; this brings the neck of the bass closer to his body, which might give him better control. I also found a photo of Amy Sutton holding down the rim of the washtub with a bare foot, which seems like it would be painful.
There are also more complicated designs for washtub basses where you don’t tilt the neck to play. Michael Bishop made a hardwood frame with a five-gallon bucket as the resonator, and a fixed neck and tuneable string. Marc Bristol, writing in Mother Earth News, September/October, 1980, issue, describes an elaborate upright bass made using a washtub as the resonator. I found a photo online of bass made on a similar plan, except the oblong washtub supports a wood sound board.
I guess if you really want an upright bass and you can’t afford a wood one, you could make one of these. But these really aren’t washtub basses; these are upright basses made in folk instrument style. The upright bass is an instrument in the violin family from Europe, but the washtub bass has roots in another continent. According to “Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, an article by David Evans in Western Folklore (vol. 29, no. 4 [Oct., 1970], pp. 229-245), the washtub bass comes from Africa:
“Two kinds of one-stringed instruments are known to Negroes in America today. One is the familiar one-stringed bass, sometimes called a ‘washtub bass’ or ‘gutbucket’ from the materials of its construction…. Its origin in the African ‘earth bow’ has been pointed out and generally accepted. This African instrument is made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a membrane of bark or hide, which is pegged down at the edges. From the membrane a string is led to a nearby sapling or stick placed in the ground. The string is then plucked, the covered hole serving as a resonator. In America an inverted washtub is simply substituted for the membrane and the hole.”
(The other one-stringed instrument is a “jitterbug,” which is a single string played in bottleneck guitar style; the jitterbug derives ultimately from the mouthbow).
What I was looking for was a version of the washtub bass that didn’t require me to develop the arms of a lumberjack, yet retained the flexibility and character of the American version of the African earth bow. And what I found was the simple yet elegant washtub bass built and played by Jim Bunch. He describes his instrument as follows:
“I have built a cross brace for the pole using a board the width of the tub supported by two small blocks that fit on the rim. This allows you to support the pole closer to the center of the tub and get good notes without putting as much tension on the string and your fingers. [Moving the pole changes the string tension and the pitch, but] you can also move up and down the pole to change notes. I tend to both adjust the tension and finger 5ths when I play. I screwed a rubber table leg cover to the middle of the cross brace that the pole fits in. This allows the pole and brace to be disassembled for the trunk of the car.” (from the Tub-o-Tonia Web site, c. 2005?)
This keeps the simplicity of the instrument; all you’re adding is a cross brace. You can still change pitch by changing the tension of the string, but it requires a lot less arm strength. And you can fret the string up and down the neck (without having to slide a PVC pipe). Using some scrap wood I had lying around, I made my own version of this, and it’s really a joy to play.
Since Jim Bunch first described his instrument on the Tub-o-tonia Web site, he has made a few modifications (see this discussion for some details). He replaced the metal bottom of the tub with 1/4 inch thick Lauan plywood; for strings, he upgraded from a 3 dollar bike derailleur cable to an upright bass woven-core G string (perhaps 50 dollars). Photos of his instrument reveal that he’s added a headstock with a nut to hold the string a bit off the finger board, as well as a tuning machine. These somewhat elaborate modifications make sense for him because he plays a lot, and he plays at a pretty high level, as you can see from his Youtube videos.
I’m not trying to perform at Jim Bunch’s level, but I feel his type of washtub bass — with the neck supported on a cross brace — is the best bet for an occasional player like me. After a couple of hours of practice, I’ve gotten good enough that I’ll be able to play in tune on simple songs at a low-key folk music jam session. And that’s all I want.
Update (Aug. 9): I’m adding sketches of Fritz Richmond’s washtub bass. Richmond played washtub bass in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and played washtub bass with popular musicians from Maria Muldaur to Loudon Wainwright to the Grateful Dead. One of his washtub basses is reportedly in the Smithsonian. In short, Richmond is probably the most famous of all washtub bass players, so his bass and his style of playing are worth looking at. A few things I noticed: First, the neck of his bass has a metal lower part and wooden upper part; it looks like it can be broken down for easier transport. Second, videos of Richmond’s playing style show that he both moved the angle of the neck and fretted up and down the neck. Third, he uses a metal nut, which in photos looks like it’s a section of a metal guitar slide. It’s also worth noting that Richmond used a special leather-and-steel glove for fretting, and a large pick for strumming.
Addendum (July 12): details of my additions to Steve’s washtub bass: I took his washtub, replaced the line (it was rough and worn and hard on my fingers), and added a neck with a Jim Bunch style cross brace. I made the neck out of scrap wood (including a discarded floral tripod that I found in the cemetery’s trash). The string is a new piece of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, which I’ve tuned roughly to D, a good tuning for many simple folk melodies. The string is tied off with figure-eight knots (a stopper knot that’s relatively easy to adjust for tuning). And Steve’s original mop handle and string are untouched, so I can return his instrument to him just the way he gave it to me. The photo below gives an idea of the most important dimension for the Jim Bunch style washtub bass — the distance between the neck and where the string is attached to the washtub.
In Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, published in 1994, he explained why he was a political liberal:
“I wanted to see the United States changed and made more civilized, more humane, truer to its own proclaimed traditions I wanted to see all Americans judged as individuals and not as stereotypes. I wanted to see all with reasonable opportunities. I wanted society to feel a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless.”
Then, Asimov surveyed the political landscape over his lifetime:
“I was only thirteen when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and introduced the ‘New Deal,’ but I was not too young to get an idea of what he was trying to do. … I disapproved of Roosevelt only when he wasn’t liberal enough, as when, for political reasons, he ignored the plight of African Americans….
“Liberalism began to fade after World War II. Times became prosperous, and many blue collar people … turned conservative. They had theirs and weren’t willing to discommode themselves for those who were still down at the bottom….
“And eventually we came to the Reagan era, when it became de rigeur not to tax but to borrow; to spend money not on social services but on armaments. … Rich Americans grew richer in an atmosphere of deregulation and greed, and poor Americans — But who worries about poor Americans except people branded with the L-word that no one dared mention any more?
“It makes me think of Oliver Goldsmith’s lines: Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
“As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.”
Asimov wrote that a quarter of a century ago, and things have mostly gotten worse since then. Perhaps there have been modest gains in people being judged as individuals and not stereotypes, most notably in the legaization of same sex marriage; but we have also learned from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo that far too many persons are victimized because of their race or sex. But when it comes to “a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless,” we have arguably regressed since 1994: Bill Clinton eviscerated aid to poor people, George W. Bush spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq while cutting social service spending at home, Barack Obama put more effort into bailing out banks during the Great Recession than helping the poor, and Donald Trump now promotes open contempt of anyone who is not wealthy.
I continue to be a deeply patriotic American, but we are growing less civilized and less humane, and we are departing wildly from our proclaimed traditions. As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.
I’m not keen on having anyone know my Web browsing habits; I’ll go into my motivations in the last paragraph of this post. I’ve taken the obvious steps to reduce the risks of being tracked online: using DuckDuckGo in private mode as my primary search engine, and Firefox as my Web browser. But online surveillance is only getting worse, and recently I decided to become more resistant to Web tracking.
I had already enabled private browsing and other privacy and security features in Firefox’s preferences, and I had already installed the Privacy Badger add-on in Firefox. I checked what I had done against a number of online privacy checklists (such as this one). Next step was to change advanced about:config settings based on this list.
Now I was ready to test my browser’s privacy using Panopticlick, an online service of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that checks if your browser is safe against tracking. My browser was blocking ads and invisible trackers, but it was not protecting against fingerprinting. Yikes! fingerprinting made it way too easy to track me online. So I installed the NoScript add-on in Firefox: problem solved. Now my browser runs a little differently from what I was used to, but the inconvenience is minor.
Why should anyone care about their Web browsing privacy? For my part, I don’t want to give my information away to for-profit companies: I don’t need targeted advertisements, and I don’t need them accumulating my data. And, in the increasingly polarized political climate of the U.S., even though a philosophical theologian like me should be reading Karl Marx’s works, or a speech by Fred Hampton, or theology essays byWilliam R. Jones, there’s no reason to let others know about it. In short, I decided to give Big Tech (corporations, the Russians, the “Gummint,” whoever) as little information about myself as possible. You will make your own decision of what to do, from freely giving your browsing data away, to being very privacy-conscious by using something like the Tor browser. I suppose this is really an existential point: you define yourself by how much of your data you give away.