Parents can relate to Geraldine Smith who, in the 1950s, warned her daughter about “gut bucket blues,” a genre of music that Mrs. Smith deemed inappropriate. Children (even those who have grown up) can relate to Donna Cunningham who, from the 1950s to the present, followed her own inclination (not her mother’s) and enjoyed a music genre that would produce widespread acclaim and record sales for Blues musicians, including many with ties to Arkansas’ Delta Lowlands (also known as Arkansas River Lowlands).
The term gut bucket — or gut bucket bass — refers to a handmade instrument that served as a bass fiddle. This instrument was made of an inverted wash bucket (also called a gut bucket during this era), a stick, and oftentimes just one string (but sometimes four). They were played in Blues music, including Boogie Woogie, and offered an energetic, usually percussive element as well as the anchoring effect that comes from the movement of deep pitches (bass lines) throughout a piece.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gut bucket basses were common; some still exist today. Their prevalence in Blues music during its rise in popularity led to the term Gut Bucket Blues for its energetic, dance-music forms.
Not surprisingly, like parents of any generation, Mrs. Smith found this newer music suspect. However, her daughter, known to many as author and beloved Pine Bluff school teacher Mrs. Donna Cunningham, enjoyed the music and published a book that covers many Blues artists.
The wisdom for parents: Parent as you believe and raise your children well. Even if you doubt their music tastes, you will still raise a fine daughter or son, maybe even a future educator and author.
The wisdom for all of us: Follow your heart and you just might reach the hearts of many others. See Mrs. Cunningham’s brief biography below as well as the source cited for the quote.
Donna Cunningham is a retired Social Studies teacher in the Pine Bluff School District. She is also co-author, along with her son Jimmy Cunningham, Jr., of Delta Music and Film: Jefferson County and the Lowlands. In dedicating the book to Mrs. Cunningham’s mother, Geraldine Smith, the co-authors stated:
“We hope for her sake that Z.Z. Hill is not in heaven playing ‘Down Home Blues’ too loudly.”
Since this post refers to Blues artists from the Delta, I will mention Big Bill Broonzy (born in Altheimer, Arkansas, and raised in Pine Bluff) and Sippie Wallace (born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with a childhood move to Texas). There are many, many more artists that the book covers.
Cunningham, Jimmy C., Jr., and Cunningham, Donna. Delta Music and Film: Jefferson County and the Lowlands. Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.