Blues With a Butter Knife

My second cousin Elwood, late of Brownwood, Missouri and one of my childhood heroes, used to sound like Doc Watson when he sang and had an odd technique for playing the guitar with a kitchen knife out of the drawer, instead of a "bottleneck" or guitar slide. Through the years, I've mentioned this technique to blues afficianadoes and guitarists, but none of them had ever heard of it. I finally saw the technique again in the 2002 documentary, "You See Me Laughin'", about the last generation of delta blues players that lived through the old south and remember the Depression in their childhood.

CeDell Davis, born in 1927 and crippled by polio when he was nine, was crippled up further when he was trampled by a panicked crowd in St. Louis in 1957. Since the 1960s, he's played a regular gig at the Jungle Hut (formerly the Jack Rabbit) in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where according to his song, "If You Like Fat Women, more fat women there than any place I ever saw." Unable to work the frets with his fingers, Davis worked out a way to play the chords with the edge of a butter knife.

Elwood is sadly gone from this life, as is his son and grandson, and I will never know whether the technique had been passed around, seen secondhand, or there was no connection at all, but at least I can vouch that it is not unique.

When I was a teenager, I was brought to the Jungle Hut by my Uncle Jerry (who lives in Pine Bluff), my Uncle Murle, and my father, and when the afternoon bartender saw us, she sounded off, "Four of you Fountains? I ain't stayin' round here," and walked right out the door. In truth, the woman was taking a break on a dead afternoon and trusting us to get our own beers and quietly shoot pool. I like the story better that it was due to my father's antique reputation for fights at dances with the social elite of the local cracker aristocracy, just so I can say I was kicked out of the Jack Rabbit Inn in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and in the event of some future altercation with a hotelier, I will always be able to say with some dignity: "I been kicked out of better places than this!"

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